Hey Hollywood, check out the box office’s Hidden Figures
Blockbusters are having a meltdown, but the major movie studios aren't learning
Numbers game: Taraji P Henson in Hidden Figures
At the start of January, Hidden Figures won the US weekend box office race, beating the behemoth that is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by taking in a couple of million shy of its $25 million budget. The head-scratching that has followed Hidden Figures’ success echoes the shock at how well Frozen did. I know, you guys. I mean, wait a minute, there’s an audience out there for something other than the white-dude action hero we’ve been flogging all this time? Get me Shonda Rhimes on the blower!
No matter how many times the US film industry experiences this so-called anomaly, the learning doesn’t seem to stick. Year after year, jaded and bloated blockbusters facepalm at the box office. Yet instead of looking around at the stories that haven’t yet been told, blockbusters feel married to an almost definition-of-madness strain of repetition.
Worse still is the apparent mashing together of two stories in the absence of an original idea, such as the Reign of Fire/Crouching Tiger hybrid of Matt Damon’s latest bomb The Great Wall. In the latest box- office figures, The Great Wall came in behind what is essentially a blockbuster parody, The Lego Batman Movie.
The fallback on superhero franchises - movies as merchandise-hawking devices – has become so devoid of imagination that the same films with the same storylines and same plots are being rehashed over and over – hello, Spider-Man – as if cinema audiences experience collective amnesia the second they exit the multiplex. Even within those successful franchises, such as the endless groaning conveyor belt of X Dudes and Avenge-os, how many Wolverine backstories can audiences really withstand?
Will Hollywood learn? The strongly performing reborn Star Wars franchise has been notable for its divergence from the white-male-hero trope, with Daisy Ridley as Rey shining in The Force Awakens, and Felicity Jones taking up much of the Rogue One poster as Jyn, although that actual film’s portrayal and use of female characters left much to be desired, with little dialogue and even fewer other female characters.
Kids might be happy to watch Cars or Trolls a hundred times, but by the time adulthood kicks in, repetition is generally something to be avoided, not savoured.
The widening of what “mainstream” actually means has been successfully done by those outside of the traditional network/studio paradigm – primarily by Netflix and Amazon – with stories that were passed over by traditional outlets finding global audiences, Orange Is The New Black and Transparent being the most obvious examples. With television overtaking film in the popularity and quality stakes, Hollywood doesn’t seem to be able to transfer that blindingly obvious example of success to cinema screens.
Both industries also need to snap out of the idea that film and television audiences are automatically gendered or racially profiled relating to the subject matter of what’s on a screen and who’s in it. That’s something television seems to be learning more quickly. As Aisha Harris pointed out on Slate last week, Insecure, Atlanta and How to Get Away With Murder “average more than 50 per cent non-black viewership”. And 79 per cent of Black-Ish’s audience isn’t black, Harris wrote, citing a recent report from Nielsen.
That men stay away from women’s stories in film and television, or that non-black people avoid shows starring black people is as debunked as the fallacy that people don’t like listening to women’s voices on the radio. The examples of success are right there, so if the tired blockbusters keep coming and failing as loudly as a Wilhelm scream, Hollywood will only continue to have itself to blame.