“Deliver a good entertainment, and the audience will come.” That’s what the venerable director Robert Wise told me after defying Hollywood doubters with his hit musical West Side Story (yes, the 1961 version).
Courtly and gracious, Wise also was a tough realist who, following his success, decided to turn to disaster movies like The Hindenburg and The Andromeda Strain. Disasters were safer bets.
Were he around today, I suspect Wise would assess Hollywood’s alleged four-quadrant audience and conclude that three had somehow drifted off to streamer heaven. “Spidey Saves the Day,” heralded the Spider-Man comic, while his youthful adherents have delivered a resounding $800 million worldwide gross for Spider-Man: No Way Home to date.
By contrast, movies aimed at the grown-up quadrant seem gripped in some sort of ‘plex poison: Nightmare Alley, The Last Duel, King Richard or, yes, West Side Story.
The questions loom large: Does streaming represent the only future for “specialty” cinema? Further, if theaters must depend on exclusive openings of superhero movies, what will sustain them in the interim?
Significantly, Sony, the only major lacking a streaming service, has now scored with Spidey, Ghostbusters: Afterlife and Venom: Let There Be Carnage.
The Spider-Man multiverse now has spanned 19 years and eight live-action films, defining what Imax CEO Rich Gelfond calls “the ultimate power-of-the-theater experience.” Not even he expected it to constitute 92% of that theater experience, as now prevails.
Here’s the paradox: The emaciated percentage of filmgoers who actually went to see West Side Story (today’s version) seemed to relish the experience. Columnists like the solidly Republican Peggy Noonan of the Wall Street Journal wrote that “the whole thing makes you feel America has a chance.” The Journal’s long-term critic Joe Morgenstern called the film “exultant.”
But are critics and columnists relevant anymore? Critics groups in New York and Los Angeles last week showered awards on a three-hour Japanese film titled Drive My Car. Directed by Ryusuki Hamaguchi, its plot focuses on a widowed actor and his female driver who travel to Hiroshima for a theatrical revival of Uncle Vanya.
The youthful audience lined up for Spider-Man: No Way Home hopefully will spill over to those action films still to open this year: The Matrix Resurrections and The King’s Man. There even might be a few leftovers that drift into Sing 2 or director George Clooney’s The Tender Bar.
But then Clooney’s movie is about a young man who yearns, not for Clooney’s old Batman cape, but to write for The New York Times. Its ultimate box office results might reflect that dubious ambition.