Hollywood climate clouded by CGI and comic book franchises

What was the last movie you saw in theaters? Maybe it was an award-worthy film like “La La Land” or “Moonlight,” but the chances are, you saw “Fantastic Beasts,” “Rogue One” or one of this year’s six comic-based films.

Over the past few years, comic-based movies have taken over the market. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, and the company continues to crank out three movies a year. However, these movies are hardly great works of cinema, some in the industry say.

Emmy-nominated producer Walt DeFaria, for one, puts the industry as it stands right now into perspective.

“There are two categories of major films: those that will win Academy awards and those that will make money,” DeFaria says. “Sometimes they overlap.”

The overlap has been far and few between, with only seven movies over the past 10 years both nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture and one of the top 10 highest-grossing films of the year. None of the aforementioned nominated films won the award.

“‘Doctor Strange’ is entertaining; it’s simply not a great motion picture,” says DeFaria of the newest entry in the Marvel series.

This trend started before “Doctor Strange,” however, as many movies in the universe have relied heavily on computer-generated images and star power, rather than cutting-edge screenwriting and cinematography. Despite this, crowds still flock to these movies like ants to leftover cake; Marvel movies accounted for half of 2016’s top 10 highest-grossing films.

Two recent films that both made money and garnered serious award consideration were “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” both produced by current head of Dreamworks Animation, Chris DeFaria, Walt’s son. The Oscar-nominated executive speaks of the big role that computer graphics plays in the industry today.

“The CG concept has so dramatically switched the ability of a filmmaker today to do whatever they want,” Chris DeFaria says. “Film has always been about the merging of storytelling with technology. The box office proves audiences want that.”

The rise of high-grossing films being churned out at a rapid rate has not yet affected the other categories of film, but there’s an indication that it might be coming, the elder DeFaria hypothesizes.

“The industry is undergoing tremendous change because the youth market is not the market of the other generations,” Walt says.

This is intensified by the vast number of franchises that are just now developing.

“I think you will see more and bigger movies in the next two years,” Chris DeFaria says. “My concern, actually lots of people’s concern is that there may not be room for all of them. The list is huge.”

If the box office is any indication, then massive franchises rule the youth market, while films like Oscar-darling “Moonlight”—which had a net gross of just $7.5 million—are left in the dust.

“It seems that there has been a reduction in our independent filmmaking because funding is harder and harder to get,”  says actress Brenda Strong of “Supergirl” and “Desperate Housewives.” “The ‘Dallas Buyers Club’ types of films are getting harder to make amidst the climate of franchised blockbuster popcorn movies like Marvel.”

Although this can be partly attributed to the general taste of the millennial generation, the rise of computer streaming may be the prime culprit. Going to the theater is not as popular as it once was, as many cinema-goers will wait until movies come out on Netflix to watch them. Most of the money a film makes is earned via movie theater viewings, so film companies are desperate to reverse this trend. There is one type of movie that still attracts mass audiences: epics.

Because of the success of films like “Avatar” and “Titanic” over the past few decades, CG has taken the limelight in the movie industry, while directors like Michael Bay and James Cameron take the forefront.

What all these films have in common is not only a heavy reliance on CG, but star power as well.

“The mass audience—they want Marvel or ‘Arrival’ or ‘Passengers,’” Walt DeFaria notes.

“Passengers” is the perfect example of a film that relies on these two elements and not much else. Headlined by Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, the film managed to gross over $180 million, despite receiving just a 31 percent critic rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

It is also worth noting that CG can take away from acting performances.

“I personally find it challenging reacting to things that aren’t there,” Strong says. “I can never gauge if my reaction is proportional to what the effect will be. Personally, I prefer an old fashioned two-person dialogue scene.”

Other than Andy Serkis, known for his role of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,” not many actors have received vast amounts of praise for CGI-heavy parts. In the last ten years, the only Best Actor winner to have worked with CGI was Leonardo DiCaprio—remember the bear scene in “The Revenant”?—but he did the majority of his acting on-location.

While the superhero genre may seem formulaic at times, it is in no way inherently bad—“The Dark Knight” has a 94 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes and won Heath Ledger an Oscar posthumously. The legacy of worthwhile movies in this genre can still be seen to this day.

“I see what George Berlanti has done with his shows on the [CW channel] and I applaud him,” Strong says. “He has brought epic stories and grounded them in the highly personal relationships of these flawed heroes and we can see ourselves in them.  Whenever something is well done, it affects the industry in a positive way.  We all want heroes.”

-Alex Poletti