2017 at the movies: The answer might be female

Hollywood’s survival next year might depend on figuring out what women want

Clay Enos, Washington Post
10:21 December 30, 2017

In many ways, 2017 the movie year has been unsettled as 2017 the year in everything else: If the past twelve months can be reduced to a pithy phrase, it might be “radical realignment.”

The year began in tumult, with Meryl Streep calling out the reality-TV star who had recently been elected president and a gobsmacking gaffe at the Oscars when Moonlight won best picture after La La Land was mistakenly announced as the big winner. The year continued apace, as Hollywood careered haphazardly between wildly unexpected successes and “sure things” that bombed just as dramatically.

The year’s first sleeper hit, Jordan Peele’s satirical horror movie Get Out, was part of a larger trend of horror pictures that did smashingly well at the box office, including Split, Annabelle: Creation and It. But the most eerie thing about a movie that ingeniously combined laughs and jump scares to critique the most subtle ills of racism was how it anticipated a year when white supremacists made news, emboldened by a president they viewed as tacitly and sometimes even explicitly supportive.

Wonder Woman turned out to be even more successfully and just as uncannily prescient, as its director, Patty Jenkins, has become the highest-grossing female filmmaker of all time, and studio executives who have spent decades catering to teenage boys learned that their core audience is more interested in a genuinely compelling woman who saves the day than another dude in spandex going through the motions. In fact, as Hollywood faltered with such big-budget flops as Baywatch, Alien: Covenant, the new Transformers movie and a misguided Mummy reboot, it was female audiences who made the spring and summer survivable, turning out in droves to see the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Wonder Woman and Girls Trip (as well as the indie breakout hit The Big Sick and, later, the beguiling coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird).

Which made it all the more galling when the year’s biggest blockbuster opened — not a movie, but a scathing New York Times expose of movie executive Harvey Weinstein and how for years he has sexually harassed, exploited and even assaulted the female actors and executives in his orbit. (Weinstein has denied charges of rape and has disputed many of his accusers’ accounts.) As similarly distressing stories cascaded — not just about Weinstein, but also about several men in the entertainment business — the connection between the biases and blind spots of male gatekeepers and the dreary movie monoculture of heroic men and silent or hypersexualised women became appallingly clear.

Just how Hollywood will look in a post-Weinstein era is still playing out, but if that realignment isn’t radical enough, the industry experienced yet another seismic jolt just a few weeks ago, when Disney bought 21st Century Fox in a deal that has reduced the “Big Six” studios to five, and casts the future of midrange, adult-oriented dramas into uncertainty. The very day the deal was announced, Streep, Tom Hanks and director Steven Spielberg were visiting The Washington Post discussing their new movie, The Post, a Fox production that epitomises the kind of smart, entertaining film that is even more in danger of being consigned to television or such streaming giants as Netflix and Amazon, with Hollywood focusing all its energy and resources on cartoons and comic book adaptations.

During the Post panel, Spielberg expressed anxieties about the changes roiling an industry that experienced nearly a 5 per cent decline in attendance this year. “I like that there’s all these places, all these homes that are willing to accept good storytellers,” he said of the rapidly multiplying platforms. “But how will the movie theatres react when everybody decides to go to the movies at someone else’s living room, as opposed to out into the world, into a theatre?”

Theatres are already reacting by adding recliner seats and high-end concessions. And audiences have already proved that they crave the collective experience of seeing a film on the big screen, whether it’s to scream together at Get Out and It, laugh together at Girls Trip or gasp in amazement at a magnificent visual spectacle like Dunkirk.

But another unspoken truth about moviegoing was self-evident during a recent trip back to my home town of Des Moines, where on Christmas Day, my family and I ran into a former colleague of my father’s at a packed screening of Darkest Hour. As he took his seat in front of us, our friend joked, “[My wife] bought the tickets, so she gets to decide where we sit.”

I immediately recalled something that Amy Pascal — who produced The Post as well as Molly’s Game — told me: Despite the movie industry being run by middle-aged men, that cohort is the hardest to get into theatres. It’s the wives, mothers, girlfriends and, in my case, bossy adult daughters of a household who more often than not decide whether to stay home and watch The Crown or venture forth to the multiplex.

From rethinking corporate leadership and business practices to reframing what ends up on the screen, Hollywood’s most radical realignment would be to finally figure out what women want, and why its survival depends on the answer.