Commentary: Does the ‘middle class’ movie have a future?

The Washington Post
Published: 4/11/2019 10:00:36 PM

When two huge corporations merge, there’s bound to be some bloodletting. So few movie industry mavens were surprised when Disney laid off about 4,000 employees of Twentieth Century Fox one day after acquiring the TV and movie studio in a deal that created a global entertainment behemoth of historic proportions.

One casualty in particular should raise alarm — with fans not just of business-page gossip, but of good movies. As part of its streamlining efforts, Disney said it would shutter Fox 2000, a Fox subsidiary, after completing the label’s current production slate.

On its face, the decision looks reasonable enough. Since its inception in the late 1990s, Fox 2000 has had a sometimes stellar, sometimes middling, sometimes awful track record at the box office, producing such movies as Marley and Me and Catch That Kid. Disney might understandably see that kind of wholesome, family-friendly film as redundant with its own slate.

But look more closely, and you can see an entire type of “middle-class” movie — one that has become increasingly endangered within the tentpole-centric ecosystem of Hollywood — disappearing with the demise of Fox 2000.

This was the studio that in recent years produced such films as Bridge of Spies, Walk the Line, Soul Food and Unfaithful — mid-budget, adult-oriented movies that weren’t based on the same kinds of intellectual property that Disney has made its fortune on. Even the studio’s adapted scripts amplified fresh work, like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada.

At a time when its competitors were desperately going after a comic book, toy or vintage movie from its own archive to reboot, Fox 2000 was one of the last big-studio bastions of originality, a place where a movie could just be a movie, and not a launchpad for a world-dominating franchise.

Not every Fox 2000 production was a home run — last year’s The Hate U Give, based on Angie Thomas’ young-adult novel, was a disappointment — but Elizabeth Gabler, who has run Fox 2000 for the past 20 years, has earned admiration not only for making movies at a reasonable production cost but for specifically appealing to underserved audiences, especially women, giving them chances to prove time and again that they’re not niches but lucrative markets unto themselves.

Consider The Family Stone, the studio’s 2005 holiday rom-com about a female executive (Sarah Jessica Parker) who enlists her sister (Clare Danes) to help her weather a Christmas visit to her boyfriend’s family. The Family Stone didn’t make the kind of cultural splash, nor the $1 billion gross revenue, that Disney made recently with the pop-feminist action-adventure film Captain Marvel. But it did earn $92 million on a budget of less than $20 million, netting a profit that was, if not superheroic, at least impressive.

The same could be said for Love, Simon, the delightful coming-of-age comedy that Fox 2000 released last year, and which won a GLAAD Award last week for its portrayal of a gay teen embracing his sexual orientation. Noting that “films like Love, Simon aren’t tentpoles, but they also aren’t independent films,” the film’s director Greg Berlanti, upon accepting his best feature film award, predicted that in the wake of the Disney-Fox merger, “The fight for equality in our multiplexes is going to get more difficult, not easier.”

In other words, diversity isn’t just a matter of representation on and off screen but of genre, scope and budget. And the three are inextricably linked. As Berlanti observed, American film is veering ever closer to becoming a monoculture, defined on one hand by giant, spectacle-heavy “events” and on the other by scrappy, subversive independents. What’s being squeezed out are movies that, because their target audiences are often women, people of color or other chronically underestimated groups, are restricted to modest production budgets. Then — to Hollywood’s eternal surprise — they “overperform” when it turns out that people like good movies regardless of category.

The finest example of this phenomenon in recent years was Hidden Figures, a medium-sized movie starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe about NASA mathematicians in the early 1960s. This edifying, entertaining story cost a mere $25 million to make and went on to earn more than $235 million.

If Disney thought closing Fox 2000 was a sound business decision, it’s worth considering what kind of a business the movie industry is becoming. As with the economy in general, a flourishing, diverse middle class should be the sign of a healthy film economy. It’s good for cultural representation, it’s good for creativity, it’s good for audiences looking for something other than the latest Spandex-clad smash-and-grab.

And, much of the time, it’s profitable. If Hollywood has reached a point where a $235 million return on a $25 million investment isn’t good enough, then the fault isn’t in our stories, or our stars, but in a business model that is dangerously, depressingly out of whack.

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