March 20, 2023


Without Art It's Really Boring!!!

Glass Onion, the new Knives Out mystery.

5 min read

In Slate’s annual Movie Club, film critic Dana Stevens emails with fellow critics—for 2022, Bilge Ebiri, Beatrice Loayza, and David Sims—about the year in cinema. Sometimes other critics interrupt. Read the first entry here.

Hi everybody!

Allow me to elbow my way into the conversation to pick up on what Bilge wrote about the theatrical success of Everything Everywhere All at Once—one of the few bright spots in another year full of bad box-office news. Audiences came back big-time for Top Gun: Maverick and they’re sure flocking to the new Avatar, but the news was much bleaker on the movies-for-grownups front, as The Fabelmans, Armageddon Time, even the endlessly memeable Tár, hit theaters with a dull flop. Cate Blanchett’s cancel-culture movie seems like it’s been a bit hit on streaming—people sure do to want to argue about what’s going on in its last act—so it’s not that people didn’t want to see it. They just didn’t want to see it in theaters. (See also Emily the Criminal, a theatrical nothing that jumped right into Netflix’s Top 10.)

The art-house audience, which tends to be older (and whiter and more urban), doesn’t seem to be coming back to theaters in the way pandemic-starved theaters (and Oscar-hopeful directors) have hoped. But the success of Everything Everywhere makes me wonder if there’s more hope for the future of moviegoing than we might think, if not necessarily where we’d expect it. I think there’s another movie this year that demonstrated a similar ability to draw people in, despite not featuring Tom Cruise or even a single space whale: Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s sequel to Knives Out.

I cherished seeing Glass Onion with a packed house at the Toronto Film Festival in September, especially because at the time, there was no guarantee it would ever unspool in front of a live audience again. Netflix opted for a weird compromise of a release: put the movie in 700 theaters over Thanksgiving weekend, and then take it away until Christmas. As frustrating and confusing as that strategy was, they did one thing right, perhaps taking a lesson from EEAAO: They opened it in multiplexes, not in art houses. And it totally worked, because, like EEAAO, Glass Onion is a movie whose audience skews younger than the one for typical art-house fare. More importantly, it’s an absolute blast to see in a crowded theater. Johnson’s script is full of laugh-out-loud jokes, like the fact that Edward Norton’s Musk-y billionaire entertains the guests on his private island with bottles of “Jared Leto’s hard kombucha,” and its twisty plot is even more fun when you’re in a room full of people trying and failing to out-think it.

The conventional wisdom has been that audiences won’t pay to go see a movie when they can just wait a little while and see it for free. (My jeremiad about how people have come to think of Netflix as a free service even though they pay for subscriptions will have to wait for next year’s interruption.) But every poster for Glass Onion included the Netflix release date—more prominently displayed than the date of its theatrical release, even—and people turned out in droves anyway. Why? Because seeing a smart, sharply acted comedy with an auditorium full of people who are enjoying it as much as you are is a fantastic fucking time. Because when you’re watching a movie full of great gags, colorful performances, and huge twists, the experience would feel incomplete without someone next to you to turn to and go: Did you see that? People showed up to see Glass Onion because they wanted that experience, which is different from the kind you get from sitting on your couch and pressing play.

Look, even, at the success of The Menu. I think that movie is pretty bad, a tepid comedy whose foodie satire is at least a decade out of date. (I mean … foam?) While $61 million worldwide isn’t MCU money, it’s pretty impressive—nearly 7 times what The Fabelmans has pulled in. Chalk some of it up to Searchlight smartly marketing the movie to horror fans, who are especially loyal to theaters and made hits out of Barbarian, The Black Phone, and Smile. (Horror movies aren’t just more fun in theaters, but more intense; Barbarian had me so wired at times it practically triggered my fight-or-flight reflex.) But if you broke down the audience’s allegiance to the faces on The Menu’s poster, I bet you’d find a lot more of Anya Taylor-Joy’s fans than Ralph Fiennes’.

I don’t know that this younger audience is going to “save movies” per se. But I think they’re connecting with the joy of seeing certain kinds of films in ways that smart distributors and exhibitors need to take better note of—and which art houses whose regulars are too concerned about Covid to walk in the door ignore at their peril. Over the last few months, my social media has filled up with accounts of young cinephiles waxing ecstatic over theatrical viewings of RRR, the off-the-wall Indian blockbuster whose audacious action and wacky CGI put the imaginations of most Western filmmakers to shame. Even though the movie was already on Netflix, they came out by the hundreds, sometimes several times over, to soak in three hours of spectacle with a roaring crowd. (Indeed, the film’s distributor has opened it again this week in New York—cannily offering free tickets to build the buzz.) It’s the kind of experience that made most of us fall in love with the movies in the first place, and it’s heartening to know that even audiences who didn’t grow up with that as the default are still seeking it out.

Read the previous Movie Club entry | Read the next Movie Club entry

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