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THB #274: How NYT's Brooks Barnes Spins Opinion Instead Of Doing Journalism
“This is about more than money: Hollywood sees the shift as an affront to its identity. Film power players have long clung to the fantasy that the cultural world revolves around them, as if it were 1940. But that delusion is hard to sustain when their lone measuring stick — bodies in seats — reveals that the masses can’t be bothered to come watch the films that they prize most. Hollywood equates this with cultural irrelevancy.”
- New York Times, Highbrow Films Aimed at Winning Oscars Are Losing Audiences
I haven’t read a more offensive - or stupid - take on how the industry feels about the theatrical business by a legitimate media source than this, in… well, maybe ever.
If you are a “film power player,” you should be deeply offended. This joker, Brooks Barnes - who has been on this beat long enough to not write delusional, baiting crap like this - is putting words in people’s mouths in the New York Times because he is rationalizing his own position. Not proving his reporting… prioritizing his personal - bad - take.
I’ve been on this beat for almost 30 years and I have never spoken to or read a single professional on the theatrical side at any level of power who has ever thought they are living in 1940’s Hollywood (even figuratively), before the public access to television. Not studio execs. Not exhibitors.
Nor the 1970s indie scene… not the 1980s, when movies could stay in first-run for a year… nor the 90s… or the DVD boom of the early 2000s. People in this industry can make a lot of bad choices… but they aren’t delusional Luddites desperate to regress.
But you see, the New York Times and their consistently industry-ignorant lead industry business-side reporters (they are masters of television… almost always wrong on film) have been rooting for the end of theatrical since 2005, when Sharon Waxman declared the death of theatrical as the domestic year dipped from the then-best-ever $9.4 billion in 2004 to $8.8 billion in 2005. By 2007, domestic box office started breaking its own annual records again ($9.7 billion). Between 2007 and 2018, domestic box office grew from $9.7 billion to a new record of $11.9 billion. But the attitude of The Times industry business coverage has remained pretty much the same ever since.
Over that same period, international box office grew from $14.3 billion to $30.9 billion. Hate to have to explain it to Brooks, but this is not passive growth. Ironically, the streaming business is - about a decade in - facing the same challenge as theatrical did back then… a saturated domestic market and a need for international growth to keep from being static. Let’s not tell him… let him maintain his fantasy that the cultural world revolves around streaming like it 2020.
This is how a lot of the media writes stories pretending to be news but are really rooted in opinions that may or may not be based on facts. Like my 12-year-old who doesn’t like to show his math work, journalists have widely stopped offering supporting evidence, so as not to bore readers. The problem is that in not showing the work, they end up blending opinion and fact. Once there, many simply stop doing the work of journalism… proving the premise… dealing with fact.
Barnes starts his story with…
“A year ago, Hollywood watched in despair as Oscar-oriented films like “Licorice Pizza” and “Nightmare Alley” flatlined at the box office. The day seemed to have finally arrived when prestige films were no longer viable in theaters and streaming had forever altered cinema.
But studios held out hope, deciding that November 2022 would give a more accurate reading of the marketplace. By then, the coronavirus would not be such a complicating factor. This fall would be a “last stand,” as some put it, a chance to show that more than superheroes and sequels could succeed.”
This is just more spun propaganda, throughout the 2 paragraphs.
It is true that the movies he mentions didn’t do well at the box office. But he cherry picks two movies… one of which wouldn’t open until December 17 and the other of which was in a 4-screen limited run until December 24. He chooses not to mention Dune or House of Gucci, both of which were nominated, both in wide release in November, and both of which did decent business.
Repeating his spin… “The day seemed to have finally arrived when prestige films were no longer viable in theaters and streaming had forever altered cinema.” This line is 100% opinion, not factually based.
But Brooks’ 2nd paragraph is written like it is properly sourced, when clearly, he has decided on something that never happened, blurring opinions that he is only partially addressing.
Of course, everyone hoped that the COVID vaccinations would make the theatrical experience more comfortable for audiences in 2022 than in 2021. And it has. But Barnes positions it as some kind of 2-step test for the future of “highbrow” films. No one that I know of saw it in this way. It’s setting up a false premise that the writer can point to, assuming in early December that it’s already proved.
But rebuilding the marketplace is not just about opening the doors and a significant percentage of potential ticket buyers again.
Moreover, studios are not measuring themselves by what happens with the box office of awards movies. This is simply a false premise.
Disney was measuring itself by The Eternals and Encanto. Universal was focused on Sing 2. Sony was measuring itself by Ghostbusters: Afterlife, the ongoing income from Venom: Let There Be Carnage, which opened in October, and the upcoming Spider-Man: No Way Home. Warner was measuring itself by Dune.
Barnes is, to rationalize his own takes, was mixing and matching to try to prove his point. Studios have been hoping that the market would be better for all movies, not just Oscar-oriented films, this year. But also… distributors will release fewer than 120 movies on 1000 screens or more this year, as compared to 160 in the pre-COVID year of 2019.
But, you assume, this year must be a lot better than last year… right? Nope. 107 new wide released in 2021. So even though the market has mostly become viable again, the distributors have simply failed to restock the shelves in a way that allowed a full recovery.
Not only does he prefer simplistic, unproven answers like, “people have grown comfortable watching these movies at home,” but he never even addressed the overall lack of movies being put in theaters. (Note: Since cable became ubiquitous in the 1980s, most people would see most movies on a TV, not in a theater seat. The majority are not the people who drive the overall box office, much less the specialty box office. It is utterly besides the point.)
Of course, Barnes proves on a regular basis that he has no concept of how the market works. The awards season has, for long as I have been covering it, been about promoting and marketing movies… making money. Movies that wait for Oscar season are, with a few annual exceptions, leaning into the marketing opportunity because those making the choices think it is their best commercial play.
Apparently, Brooks-y has mistaken Netflix and other streamers efforts, which do not involve theatrical revenue, as the new norm for everyone. Those streamers don’t need to open their movies to theatrical box office success. They time those movies ONLY to try to be in position for awards.
“The diminishing importance of big screens was accentuated in March, when, for the first time, a streaming film, “CODA” from Apple TV+, won the Academy Award for best picture.”
Idiocy. Again, Our Mr. Brooks is hung up on a premise that was false from before his first computer stroke. It not only misunderstands exhibition, it misunderstands streaming.
What was the most watched Oscar-hopeful movie on Netflix when they landed Best Picture nods for both Mank and The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2020/21? The Midnight Sky, which was nominated… for Visual Effects, along with Tenet, Mulan, The One and Only Ivan, and Love and Monsters (a direct-to-VOD title).
Does Barnes think that Drive My Car breaking through with an Oscar Best Picture nod mean that its $2.4 million box office, never appearing on more than 213 screens, is a signal about the box office?
What did the Dune ($108 million) nomination mean to Brooks? The next highest domestic Best Picture nominee’s gross was West Side Story, with $39m, Licorice Pizza with $17m, King Richard with $15m, Nightmare Alley with $11m, and Belfast with $9m.
Does Brooks think that more people actually saw CODA than saw West Side Story or Dune, or for that matter, Don’t Look Up, which led Netflix awards movies in viewership last season?
Please explain how you measure cultural impact, BB.
That’s a bit rhetorical… I think I know the answer… his measurement is what it feels like to him with the limited knowledge that he has. Not good enough, bub.
The most seen Best Picture nominee has won a total of NO Best Picture Oscars in the last decade. Life of Pi, Gravity, American Sniper, The Martian, La La Land, Dunkirk, Black Panther, Joker, The Father, and Dune were all Best Picture-nominated and grossed more than any of its competitors… and failed to win, every one.
The last time the highest grossing nominees won Best Picture was the year before the expansion to more than 5 Best Picture nominees… 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire. Of course, that movie was headed to direct-to-DVD, before we had streaming, until Searchlight saved it and made it a $378 million worldwide hit.
So what does that say about the cultural impact of box office and the choices to make and distribute “highbrow” films?
It’s obviously a rhetorical question. And Danny Boyle would not call Slumdog “highbrow.”
Brooks Barnes saw an opportunity to conflate things that really are not connected as issues to try to make the point he (and presumably his editors) want(s) to make.
But what they have done is to make an argument equivalent to claiming that because poor people eat more fast food than wealthy people, poor people don’t like higher quality food. Or that Netflix is so popular that people spend more time watching it than Legacy media, when in fact, Legacy media still takes up about 60% of screentime and Netflix under 7%. (That’s a very impressive number for Netflix… if in context.)
Barnes bounces around from idea to idea, never really making a legitimate argument in any one direction. He cites movies like he has never seen each movie, unable to offer a reasonable context for their successes or failure. Won’t even start with his inability to distinguish films in exclusive, limited or wide release.
This is a fool who claims about these quality films, “their lone measuring stick - bodies in seats” in the middle of a story about how the films fit into the Oscar season… a different measuring stick.
He does ask for opinions and yes, just because he offers them does not make all of them untrue. “Ask 10 different specialty film executives to explain the box office and you will get 10 different answers. There have been too many dramas in theaters lately, resulting in cannibalization; there have been too few, leaving audiences to look for options on streaming services. Everyone has been busy watching the World Cup on television. No, it’s television dramas like “The Crown” that have undercut these films.”
Also mentioned: COVID, short windows, not enough comedies, the sophistication level of audiences.
I don’t need to argue for or against every theory. It is true. There are many different takes… few of them based on thoughtful analysis. There are no easy answers.
That’s kinda my point here.
Barnes’ personal take seems to be the most important in this story. Even though he manages to be offensive and show ignorance of the facts throughout.
It’s not about us disagreeing. I can disagree without being offended (or offending).
But the most dangerous voices are the ones that are most matter-of-fact about their correctness while being insultingly, aggressively uninformed. Dare I say, this piece is Trumpian.
I mean, this patso is still quoting Bob Chapek after Chapek got fired for not being able to deliver on his promises for streaming. Because Brooks-y agreed with the statement… which was made in a public forum, arguing that the position Chapek was fired over was right.
But because it’s the New York Times, people will rely on it as some kind of truth. Media will rely on it as some kind of truth. Not the details. Like the details I offer, those will fade for most readers. They will fade from outlets writing their own version of this misguided story. It’s the overall tone of the piece - and all the pieces to follow - that people will remember. And it will make them wrong in conversation after conversation.
The truth is, media very rarely has a real impact on how this industry ebbs and flows. But if you repeat a lie often enough, particularly unchallenged, people come to believe it. And sometimes, it can seriously undermine an industry.
If you are in the film industry, Barnes thinks you are a delusional idiot more interested in maintaining the status quo than making the maximum revenues. I know and know of a lot of very powerful people in this industry who are mentally challenged. But not this way. This is an industry that changes to accommodate consumers - and exhibitors who accommodate distributors - year after year after year. If you don’t see it, you aren’t paying attention.
Do your job, Brooks. It’s not about you. There are enough very real challenges right now - to theatrical and to streaming - without you abusing the privilege of writing in The Gray Lady to make it any worse.
This subscription offering is a “last stand,” because that sounds dramatic and might make you go ahead an put in your e-mail and your credit card number.