When COVID-19 first hit Hollywood, there was a major concern that the forced closure of movie theaters would hamper its commercial success. And it did. According to Forbes, the total revenue of the global theatrical and home/mobile entertainment market was $80.8 billion, which was the lowest figure since 2016 and a decline of 18 percent from the previous year. Not surprisingly, theaters’ revenue suffered the sharpest decline, which dropped to $12 billion in 2020 from $42.3 billion
This context itself may be sufficient to explain why the film industry has become increasingly obsessed with commercial success — where filmmakers are reluctant to risk creating original stories that have no guarantee they will sell well. To some extent, such a trend is understandable given that the rise of online streaming services such as Netflix has broadened entertainment options for audiences and heightened competition within the industry. The pandemic hit the industry even harder, and filmmakers are even more concerned about making their productions as economically viable as possible.
But the reality is that the film industry had been on the decline even before the pandemic. Two years ago, during an interview with Empire Magazine, renowned film director Martin Scorsese compared the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies to theme parks, blatantly declaring that they are not real cinema. Later, in response to overwhelming criticism from Marvel fans, Scorsese explained his initial remarks in a New York Times op-ed: “When the Hollywood studio system was still alive and well, the tension between the artists and the people who ran the business was constant and intense, but it was a productive tension that gave us some of the greatest films ever made … Today, that tension is gone.” In other words, Scorsese’s “insulting” comment is not necessarily against the Marvel franchise itself, but rather lamenting today’s Hollywood where business-oriented people have come to dominate those for whom films are a form of art.
He writes, “It was about confronting the unexpected on the screen and in the life it dramatized and interpreted, and enlarging the sense of what was possible in the art form.” In other words, “good” films involve elements of unexpectedness — something that strikes viewers in a way that challenges their pre-assumptions or pre-existing worldviews. The audience’s reaction to such a twist is also unexpected; that’s why it’s risky to pursue creativity or originality in filmmaking, yet it’s precisely through this practice that truly great films are created.
For instance, in an era when many films centered around the creation of noble characters, Scorsese’s 1976 film “Taxi Driver” successfully drew attention to broader societal issues such as corruption and hypocrisy through a portrayal of one delusional, lonely, misguided protagonist who resorts to violence to confront his helpless anger toward society. His alienation from the rest of the society largely echoes with the public disillusionment and declining confidence in ‘American-ness’ following the catastrophic failure of the Vietnam War. In some ways, “Taxi Driver” is a disturbing film that exposes us to the darkest part of ourselves, but such originality is what makes the film a work of art.
On the other hand, many franchises today, ranging from Marvel to Jurassic Park to Spider-Man, employ copy-and-paste plots that filmmakers are convinced the audience will love and always come back to watch as a source of comfort. For instance, every version of “Jurassic Park” repeats the same narrative — dinosaurs escape the park and try to destroy humankind, but a group of protagonists successfully restores the chaos to order. There is nothing complicated or surprising about such a plot, but more often than not, the movie sells well because it touches on the audience’s sense of adventure and curiosity on a superficial level without necessarily having real substance. As a result, such a big brand name entices the audience with the sufficient assurance that, to some extent, the movie is going to be pleasurable or comforting, no matter how cliche it sounds.
I am not here to criticize the moviegoers who love watching franchises and enjoy some level of comfort from copy-and-paste narratives that are in no way original or creative. But Martin Scorsese is right: Contemporary films are slowly losing their creative thought and have become more homogeneous in nature. Some people may argue that this is just a new phenomenon and that it’s inevitable that people’s taste in films changes over time. However, as someone who loves the old Hollywood films that connect with the audience at an individual level, I would argue that the film industry is dying rather than changing.
Hollywood needs to bring more diversity to its films. Instead of fixating on securing the stable revenue stream by relying on an established success formula, Hollywood must further invest in ensuring that filmmakers have a certain level of freedom to explore the originality and creativity in their productions. Of course, franchises like Marvel have their own appeals to the audience, and they will continue to exist in their own genres, maintaining widespread popularity and ardent fan bases. Yet this must not equate to eliminating other genres that take a different approach to film production.
As Scorsese said, finding a balance between “the artists and the people who ran the business” may be the first step to reviving the Hollywood film industry — a tension that once gave rise to some of the greatest films ever made.
Sae Furukawa PO ’25 is from Tokyo, Japan. She loves nonfiction, documentaries and Coppola’s films.