Ben Affleck Is Right About Movie Theaters, Marvel

Alan Arkin and Ben Affleck in Argo. Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Oscar-winning filmmaker Ben Affleck is right when he talks about movie theaters trending in the direction of Marvel and event films.

Affleck’s comments came recently as the actor was the subject of an Entertainment Weekly cover story. In an interview with Matt Damon asking questions, the two were discussing the failure of The Last Duel at the box office. I’m not going to post a paragraph excerpt because it would just display the quote out of context.

Obviously it was a box office failure. But interestingly enough, it’s number one on iTunes. So it means that there is an audience, just one that was unwilling to go in the middle of a pandemic to the theater. How does that make you feel, coming out with another drama — did COVID just accelerate something that was going to take 10 or 15 years, or is it coming back?

You know, I won’t hedge, because that’s always boring. I will say, when The Way Back came out, it was released the week they closed the theaters [for the pandemic]. But even before then I knew this movie about grief and a child dying and alcoholism and recovery is just not going to get adults in the seats. We were just talking about Narcos: MexicoSuccessionMare of Easttown. There’s these amazing things being done on streamers. Roma! It’s not just some formulaic TV procedural like when we were kids. And you could only watch it like my dad, on an 11-inch black-and-white TV.

If I had to bet, a drama like Argo would not be made theatrically now. That wasn’t that long ago. It would be a limited series. I think movies in theaters are going to become more expensive, event-ized. They’re mostly going to be for younger people, and mostly about “Hey, I’m so into the Marvel Universe, I can’t wait to see what happens next.” And there’ll be 40 movies a year theatrically, probably, all IP, sequel, animated.

The Last Duel really clinched it for me. I’ve had bad movies that didn’t work and I didn’t blink. I know why people didn’t go — because they weren’t good. But I liked what we did. I like what we had to say. I’m really proud of it. So I was really confused. And then to see that it did well on streaming, I thought, “Well, there you go. That’s where the audience is.”

Good Will Hunting turns 25 years old this year but the film would not get the same sort of love today at the theaters. The film is an original but it’s more likely to be well received at a film festival before getting a streaming release. Maybe a limited run for awards qualifying but that’s it. It would not be the bonafide blockbuster that it became upon release in the 1990s. As Affleck comments, I don’t even know if Argo would have the same sort of reception today. This is a film that won Best Picture! Although to be fair, the Oscar win could be because of the Academy snubbing Affleck for Best Director. The question stands, could the film earn more than $100 million at the box office today?

When you look at Affleck’s films as a director, they fare better with Oscar voters. But even in films he isn’t directing, Affleck delivered one of the best performances in The Way Back during the pandemic-affected box office of 2020. Sadly, the film had the unfortunate luck of opening the very weekend before the WHO announced the Covid-19 pandemic. However, it earned way more than The Last Duel did at the domestic box office.

A film could be a good idea at the time a studio gives it a greenlight. However, there’s no telling what the critical or audience reception will look like. Critics might love it and audiences hate it or vice versa. But when you look at who is going to the movies right now and what they’re seeing, it’s mostly Marvel movies. When you look at last year’s top ten grossing films, the large majority were sequels or Marvel films. Free Guy was one of the rare original IP films to break into the top ten but it stars Ryan Reynolds. Pixar movies are usually the type of films that can crack the top ten at the box office. However, all of their films–because of the pandemic–are going straight to Disney+. Lightyear will probably stay theatrical because it’s a Toy Story prequel.

Listen, I’m not going to say this lightly. There’s a segment of Film Twitter clamoring for people to see everything on the big screen. If you look at my circle, more people are staying home than going to the movies. A lot of this is either because of the pandemic or how much it costs to keep their children at home. It could also be a mix of both. While Spider-Man: No Way Home is crushing it at the box office amid the Omicron surge, others are waiting until they can watch safely at home. I can’t blame them and I’m being respectful by not openly discussing spoilers. With the surge right now, I definitely wouldn’t recommend going to a movie theater and I far prefer the theatrical experience over a watermarked press screener.

One clear winner in all of this is Netflix. They are filling a void in the space. Netflix is already home to the future Knives Out movies and is rightfully starting a Red Notice franchise. These are films that used to do well on the big screen. But during a pandemic? Not so much. When you release them directly onto a streamer, the audiences will eat it up. The low and mid-budget adult dramas are not going to see much time on the big screen. Filmmakers will have no choice but to turn to Netflix and other streamers because the studios won’t release their films. I don’t know what will become of film festivals. Outside of the Oscar contender launches, a lot of the indies end up getting VOD releases. Film fests, when they are in person, are the only way to watch them on the big screen.

How we watch movies are changing. It’s becoming clear as day what audiences want to see at the movie theaters. They want the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, and other event movies over films such as a Steven Spielberg musical or Guillermo del Toro noir. It’s unfortunate but true. The sooner we collectively accept this, we can leave the discourse behind. For the love of everything holy, please make more comedies on this end of the pandemic because I badly need the laughs!

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Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.