Rewinding 2018 (Part One): An Overview

December 26, 2018
A thought by James Berardinelli


In this critic’s opinion (one that isn’t universally shared), 2018 has been an exceptionally poor year for movies. Yes, the box office will argue with this assessment – it’s up about 6% (by tickets sold) over last year and at parity with 2016, but, when it comes to movies, money isn’t the whole story. The industry has always blended art and commerce and it’s in the former category that 2018 has disappointed. And one can also question the sustainability of this year’s revenue-boosting strategies. The past twelve months have failed in three key areas: a lack of titles (at least after May 1) capable of generating a palpable sense of anticipation, the absence of a strong undercurrent of quality and originality in the “prestige” films, and the inability of one or two late-year titles to ignite the movie-lover’s dormant passion for the medium. I’ll address these individually before moving on to the year’s biggest movie-related stories.

2018 started off with plenty of energy but after the one-two punch of Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, the air went out of the balloon. From the beginning, the summer season looked weak and it didn’t improve once we were into it. Sure, people still went to the movies but the intensity was missing. Seeing a movie is different than being engaged – one is passive and the other is active. Viewers were watching films and moving on – the way consumers react to disposable clutter. People were passionate about the two early-year Marvel movies but, aside from perhaps Incredibles 2, nothing released after May 1 generated the kind of response that would mark a thriving movie culture. Viewers were more interested in streaming and TV properties – two varieties of entertainment that will eventually challenge theatrical motion pictures for our time and dollars (if they haven’t already).

One constant in the annual movie calendar has always been that, no matter how middling the January through October releases may be, real movie-lovers can look forward to the November/December “Oscar Season,” when the prestige pictures come out to play. In 2017, the reliability of this formula faltered; however, considering the relative strength of the rest of 2017, that was perhaps to be expected. Unfortunately, this new trend was amplified in 2018, resulting in a depressingly flat end-of-the-year. By the numbers, using my Top 10 as a barometer and looking at the last four cycles (including 2018)… In 2015, six of the Top 10 were November/December releases. In 2016, the number was a whopping eight. In 2017, it dropped to four (plus one with a direct-to-Netflix release). This year, it’s three (including Roma – although technically a direct-to-Netflix release, it was given a semi-wide theatrical run). In my opinion, the bottom 4-5 films wouldn’t have made it onto 2017’s Top 10. This illustrates a marked downturn in quality. The #6-10 titles on the 2018 list are still very good motion pictures but an overall erosion is evident.

Finally, the biggest disappointment about 2018 is the lack of a BIG November/December release – something to really get excited about – either a scintillating four-star masterpiece or a highly anticipated mass market release. 2015 offered both: the magnificent The Hateful Eight and the mammoth The Force Awakens. In 2016, it was Arrival and (to a lesser degree) La La Land. (Although I gave the latter 3.5 stars, it was a joyous treat). 2017 brought Three Billboards to the Oscar race and The Last Jedi to multiplexes. (Although Jedi proved to be divisive, there’s no doubt its arrival was greeted with more anticipation than Heinz Ketchup.)

These three things together have combined to leave me dissatisfied with 2018 as a whole. Whether these trends will continue going forward remains to be seen. The industry can ill-afford to stumble when its future lies in the balance, threatened on one side by a generation’s growing disinterest in the experience of “going to the movies” and by the increasing appeal of at-home options like Netflix and other TV/streaming services.

Looking at 2018’s big stories, although the “#MeToo” movement had its genesis in 2018, it continued to impact every aspect of the motion picture industry throughout 2018, from the early-year Golden Globes and Oscar ceremonies to the more mundane day-to-day activities. Although there were no Harvey Weinstein-sized explosions, the year wasn’t without its casualties as Les Moonves was required to step down from CBS and “#MeToo” founder Asia Argento ended up on the receiving end of an accusation. However, as much discussion as there has been about the underlying principles of the movement, it’s unclear whether there have been any deeply-rooted reforms implemented within Hollywood. Awareness is important but it’s too soon to say whether there will be a lasting impact or whether the public will lose interest and turn its attention to something else.

The rise and fall of MoviePass, which I have written about elsewhere, also represents a major 2018 movie-related news item. Although the collapse of one fringe company may not seem like a big thing, MoviePass made a significant impact during its short lifetime, forcing at least one major U.S. theater chain (AMC) to rethink how it sells movies to its most frequent customers. That kind of membership package, modeled on the principles that have made Netflix successful, could prove to be the wave of the future for theaters. If customers can sample and binge the way they do at home, the new model may find favor with those who like the freedom of trying new things without the financial penalty of paying for a ticket. AMC’s Stubs A-List program appears to be close to the sweet spot at the moment in terms of pricing and what it offers. It’s the best deal available (at least for those within a reasonable distance of one or more AMC multiplexes) for anyone who sees between 3-12 movies per month.

One thing that’s not getting the proper attention (at least not yet) is Disney’s growing box office dominance. This can’t be considered a good thing because it has the potential to stifle competition and diminish choice. The Disney umbrella, which currently contains Legacy Disney, Pixar, Lucasfilm, and Marvel, has achieved the kind of theatrical domination never before seen. Adding Fox next year will only strengthen the brand. In 2018, Disney accounted for either five or six of the top 10 grossing films (depending on what happens with Mary Poppins Returns and Aquaman), including the top three. Disney’s success is such that, of its 10 major 2018 releases, seven fell within the Top 20 (making a safe assumption with respect to Mary Poppins Returns). The 2019 roster looks more lopsided, with potentially as many as eight of the Top 10 being Disney productions. That could change but not by much. Monopolistic control over the box office will likely result in an unappealing homogenization of stories. Those who appreciate true variety must hope that at least one of the other studios mounts some kind of challenge to Disney or, by the time Walt’s baby loses its footing (which must inevitably happen), there won’t be anything ready to step into the gap.

Tomorrow: End the year with a turkey feast!