Movies are Art Rather Than Product

There is a major problem that has occurred in film journalism and discussion over the last decade. I've been writing professionally about movies since 2012 (when I broke in with the now defunct but great while it lasted Collective Publishing Company), and I've seen the gradual increase of the commodification of movies. I realize movies have always been a business and many are owned by giant studios with the goal of making money being central, but over the past several years, I've seen critics and journalists write and talk about film more as business rather than art.

I am not just talking about the stream of trailer reviews or discussion on press releases that has turned reporting mostly into free advertising for movie studios. I'm also pointing to the language that we use to describe films that make them resemble a power tool or box of cereal rather than a work of art. When you read articles today or listen to podcast discussions, it is almost inevitable you will hear or read movies being described with words like 'franchise', 'brand', 'content', and 'product'.

I must confess that I've used every single one of those words to describe movies and I am embarrassed to admit that I will frequently use them many more times in the future, I'm sure. The words are so ingrained in the conversation about movies and television today that it is a scaling Everest during a raging blizzard type challenge to consciously avoid them. The prevalence of those words is harmful to movie discussion.

The word 'franchise' makes me think I'm ordering a Big Mac or getting an oil change. It is a word tied to business and making money. As much as I adore Star Wars, its box office success played a big part in 'franchise' being a way to describe a movie series. While I do think George Lucas cared about the quality of his movies and did have an artistic vision, he was also one of the first filmmakers that really saw the financial potential in a popular movie. He was a major part in popular movie images being slapped on lunch boxes and beds adorned with the movie hero and the most popular toys connected with our favourite movies and theme parks revealing rides based on movies and essentially, almost any product being able to be branded by stuff like Indiana Jones, Star Wars or Cars. It also led to several cartoon TV series in the 1980s largely existing, so they could sell more toys like He-Man Masters of the Universe or Care Bears. The mass ancillary products of popular movies that became a major part of blockbusters in the 1980s makes it hard to not label the biggest hit movies as 'franchises' and 'brands.'

'Content' as a term to describe movies or TV series seems to have been birthed from the rise of streaming services and especially Netflix. There is no doubt in my mind that Netflix deems their programming as 'content.' It is just stuff to fill spaces in their service and quality is far less important than quantity. This isn't to say that Netflix hasn't created great shows and movies. Roma, The Irishman Power of the Dog were strong Best Picture contenders. Netflix has also played a strong part in bringing back the rom-com with quality movies like Set It Up, Always Be My Maybe and To All the Boys I Loved Before. But after reviewing many of the Netflix Original movies, I can say that most aim to be passable, as a thing you can watch in the background while you fold your laundry or do your taxes. Most of them are not awful but also not really good, but just things you watch to pass the time and forget about right after watching. It really is 'content' and much like mass-producing jars of peanut butter, it is 'product' too.

Let me make something clear, I understand that movies are designed to make money. Here is the thing, almost every artist and creator aspires and desires to make money off their work. I know there are exceptions of those that wear the badge of the 'starving artist' with honour or those that purposefully hold down a completely different job so that they can write novels, paint pictures or make sculptures for free. But as someone who aspires to be a novelist and a person who has friends who are artists, musicians and writers, I know each of them wants to make a living on their work because it allows them to focus on it more. Each of these artists may do things for hire, but they still add their own creativity and style and put great pride into their work. They want to make money, but they still see their works as art.

Movies are art. My guess is that most filmmakers would agree with me. Most probably put a lot of pride into their work. But the current environment is one where movies are treated and talked about as consumer products with its greatest value being if it can sell. That is a real shame and devalues the messages, stories and creativity that movies have.

One of the big problems has been movie writers have been focusing more and more on the box office. While there is a place for talking about the box office, the issue is that there has been such an obsession with the box office that the value of a movie has been connected with what they earned. I've read and heard critics call a movie a disaster or flop entirely based on how it did financially, and that is really harmful for discussing and analyzing movies. You can look at the business side of movies, but when looking at the value of a movie, it should be entirely separate from how much money it made. When discussing a movie, it is the creativity, story, originality and artistry that matters, and its success at the box office has nothing to do with it. RIPD is not bad because it flopped at the box office, but due to it being sloppily made and feels like a low-rent Men in Black.

The problem is I'll read and hear an older movie get disparaged even though the critic didn't even see the film and is totally based on its financials. I don't care how much money a movie has made. People constantly whine about how there are no original ideas or that everything is a big superhero movie now, but then attack original movies because they didn't draw an audience. A movie writer should try to find those bombs and champion them, so they can stay in the conversation or find an audience. There seems to be this movement where some writers get glee from a movie bombing, and that is detrimental to the movie conversation. We don't see people caring how much Leonardo da Vinci made on his paintings or judging a sculpture by how much it was sold for, but rather we appreciate the artistry of the work. This is something that desperately needs to return to movie analysis.

I say this as someone who has talked about box office and before Covid rattled theatre-going for two years, did an annual Summer Box Office Challenge on The Movie Breakdown. I think, there is a time to talk box office, but it is more important to remember to analyze and discuss the artistry and themes and creativity of movies. The Nice Guys, The Last Duel and Blade Runner 2049 did not find an audience, but that does not take away from them being movies that I feel are worth tracking down and should be talked about.

Movies reflect our society. Movies are a celebration of life. Movies give us a window into different worlds and perspectives. They have so much more value than just how much they make for a studio. I think as writers and fans of movies, we need to concentrate on that and encourage talk about their story and technical merit and character development and what it says about our world and society. We need to seek out and champion the movies that did get forgotten and ignored. Especially for critics, it is mandatory to try to find ways to uncover hidden gems and allow high-quality movies to continue to be discussed and watched.

It is valuable to see those smaller movies and the ones that didn't find an audience. It is also just as important to not forget about the history of movies. Any movie fan should try to seek out not just classic movies but older movies that once were hits that have been forgotten or those that were always under the radar. The goal should be to see as many different movies as possible. Movies are art and all art can be presented in different and unique ways, and movie fans or critics should try to expose themselves to as many kinds of movies as possible. We need to embrace the artistry of filmmaking.

Yes, studios make movies to earn money. The filmmaker obviously hopes a movie is a financial success. But most important of all, movies are art. They continue to have value and importance even when they flop at the box office. The conversation and analysis can continue for years. Movies are so much more than just a business and that is something we need to remember more than ever.