Summer Movies Cast Doubt on Industry’s Wisdom

  • Elsie Fisher appears in a scene from "Eighth Grade," one of the many films released this summer that broke the mold, and that should demonstrate to movie executives that a diverse range of films can be profitable. (A24)

The Washington Post
Friday, August 31, 2018

In many ways, the summer of 2018 exemplified the more distressing trends in mainstream moviemaking, with the usual boatload of sequels, cartoons and overstuffed special-effects spectacles sucking most of the oxygen — and box-office dollars — out of the multiplex.

But in parsing what worked and what didn’t, the story that emerges is far more nuanced, even encouraging. This is a summer when the comps got interesting.

“Comps,” in showbiz parlance, are movies of similar genres that filmmakers can use to convince studios that their version has a viable audience. For years, Hollywood gatekeepers used comps — say, Twister is a comp for Deep Impact is a comp for San Andreas — as an excuse to nix movies that in any way broke the usual mold, whether they veered from the blockbuster playbook du jour, or centered on women or a protagonist from an underrepresented group.

A vicious cycle ensued: Because studios didn’t make them in the first place, no comps existed for the next one, leading to an endless onslaught of cookie-cutter iterations of white guys in spandex finding new ways to destroy-the-world-in-order-to-save-it.

The past few years have witnessed some welcome cracks in the monotonous conventional wisdom, with the success of such hits as Hidden Figures, Straight Outta Compton, Wonder Woman and Black Panther.

But the winners of this summer suggest that stories and genres the film industry seemed to have written off still have the power to attract big, enthusiastic audiences (and, not incidentally, make a healthy amount of money, which is what the comps are all about).

Documentaries have always enjoyed pride of place during the summer season, offering brainy diversion from the superheroes dominating the big screen. This year saw three breakouts in RBG, Three Identical Strangers and Won’t You Be My Neighbor — the latter of which, at an extraordinary $22 million and counting, has set the record for the best performing biographical documentary of all time.

Although many observers have bemoaned the fact that art-house movies have been relegated to an overcrowded fall awards season, more than a few broke out over the past few months to do gangbusters business, including the winsome coming-of-age comedy-drama Eighth Grade; the intriguing horror thriller Hereditary; Paul Schrader’s triumphant comeback, First Reformed; and Boots Riley’s gonzo contemporary satire Sorry to Bother You.

As a multilayered critique of such subjects as racism, class mobility, identity and assimilation, Sorry to Bother You led a pack that included Blindspotting, The First Purge and BlacKkKlansman, both of which engaged similar themes with spiky, observant wit. BlacKkKlansman, which was co-written and directed by Spike Lee, represented the best opening of the filmmaker’s 30-plus-year career. Like Get Out and Black Panther before them, all four movies reflected a trend of artists using unexpected genres to address realities of American life that would be too taboo or painful to confront head-on.

There’s a term for that, which the actor Ethan Hawke shared earlier this month in a spirited and insightful interview at the Locarno Film Festival: Trojan horse movies. “If I told you I was making an important film about race relations in America ... you start yawning immediately,” said Hawke, who starred in The First Purge and First Reformed this summer. Whether it’s through the cinematic language of horror or a rap musical or a stoner midnight movie or a cop caper, these films are fusing pop art with thoughtful content in exhilarating and meaningful ways.

Of course, that wasn’t the quote that made Hawke go viral a few days later; instead, it was a moment when he used the film Logan as an example to criticize Hollywood for calling perfectly good commercial movies great art. What Hawke intended as an observation about marketing hyperbole quickly morphed into a meme about high-low culture, snobbery and fanboy hegemony.

What few of Hawke’s critics failed to pick up on was a comment he made a few moments earlier, when he quoted John Cassavetes: “There’s no such thing as high art and low art, there’s good movies and bad movies.” If the summer demonstrated anything, it’s that with enough taste, competence, smarts and stellar performances, good movies can be found in even the most formulaic genre, whether it’s a gritty urban thriller (The Equalizer 2), a jukebox musical (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again), a superhero spinoff (Ant-Man and the Wasp), a stunt-oriented action thriller (Mission: Impossible - Fallout), or a slick heist flick (Ocean’s 8).

There were clunkers, to be sure: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom was a lugubrious mess, and the best thing about Skyscraper was the reemergence of Neve Campbell as a bracingly badass leading lady. Both films did notably strong business in China, which is poised to exert ever more power with studios eager to lure viewers in that enormous and still-growing market.

Strangely, the summer’s most hotly anticipated hit, Crazy Rich Asians, has yet to secure a distribution deal in China. In the meantime, it has helped resuscitate a form that Hollywood has otherwise written off in recent years: the romantic comedy. If Crazy Rich Asians made history for its casting, it deserves credit for reinvigorating the rom-com, along with such winning Netflix titles as Set It Up, Ibiza and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before.

And there’s Juliet, Naked, a beguiling indie that co-stars Ethan Hawke — this summer’s undisputed MVP.