Watch Director James Gray Perfectly Sum Up What's Wrong With The Current State Of Movies

The only constant is change. We've all heard that little truism a million times by now, though it especially applies to the film industry throughout its history. Well before the pandemic ever arrived on the scene and promptly disrupted the theatrical landscape, the moviegoing habits of general audiences had already begun to undergo a seismic change — spurred on in no small part by the types of movies that studios have gone out of their way to fund in the first place. The result: the almost wholesale disappearance of the mid-budget, adult-oriented drama and an environment where, by and large, only four-quadrant $200 million dollar-plus blockbusters even have a chance of making a profit in theaters.

Countless industry veterans and analysts have attempted to diagnose these very obvious symptoms for several years now, all in the search of some sort of catch-all solution. Are audiences solely to blame? Did the Marvel Cinematic Universe and other superhero movies completely retrain viewers to only turn out for spectacle and nothing else? What about the overall pivot towards streaming? Is this just part of the natural ebbs and flows of any artistic medium? Am I going to keep pushing the limit of how many rhetorical questions in a row I can get away with before you tune me out completely?

In the midst of all this uncertainty and existential angst (relatively speaking, of course), at least one incredibly talented, well-respected, and experienced director is finally speaking up in the most eloquent terms about what's gone wrong.

'I think the theatrical is essential'

Director James Gray ("We Own the Night," "Two Lovers," "The Immigrant," "The Lost City of Z," "Ad Astra") is certainly familiar with the struggles of trying to craft original, low-budget, and genuinely visionary movies during this current period in time, especially as he gears up to release his upcoming "Armageddon Time." As filmmakers and box office gurus know all too well, simply fighting to get these sorts of stories greenlit at all is only half the battle — they also have to do well in theaters (meaning earn back twice their budget, at least) to justify further investments. That's precisely the bean counter logic that Gray is taking direct aim at in a recent interview with Deadline.

In a clip that has since gone viral, Gray eloquently lays out the fundamentals of how exactly we ended up here and, more importantly, what can be done to fix things. First, Gray maintains the importance of the theatrical experience, saying: 

"I think the theatrical is essential. If you look at the streaming movies that do the best, they are the movies that come out in theaters first. That should tell you something." 

As our own Ryan Scott has written several times, this lines up perfectly with the evidence at hand. But he goes on to lay the blame at the feet of the overriding studio mentality that values profit margins above all else:

"Here's what happened ... when you make movies that only make a ton of money and only one kind of movie, you begin to get a large segment of the population out of the habit of going to the movies. And then you begin to eliminate the importance of movies culturally. When you are so quarterly earnings bottom-line minded, you lose the big brain vision..."

The homogenization of movies

James Gray is quick to point out that this isn't some kind of anti-superhero screed, implicitly drawing comparisons to what Martin Scorsese had to say a few years back that far too many fans mistook for a personal attack. As he puts it:

"I have no problem with a comic book movie. I have seen excellent ones made. I think Tim Burton's second 'Batman' movie is a beautiful movie and Michelle Pfeiffer is brilliant in it. I think what Chris Nolan does and my friend Matt Reeves certainly did with the deep dive of his 'Batman' film...I know there are things that can be done in the genre. It's not an argument saying that all comic movies are terrible; no, of course they should be made."

So with that caveat out of the way, what's the real problem? According to the director:

"The slate though, the fact that it's no longer broad-based for theatrical by the studios, means that they have forced a smaller and smaller and smaller segment of the population to like it ... and the Academy Awards, they know it. 'Why is the viewership going down?' It's going down because we didn't make the investment in the broad-based engagement with the product. Maybe Ang Lee's 'Ice Storm' didn't make a billion dollars, but it maintained broad-based interest. So, we've got to force it back. The studios should be willing to lose money for a couple of years on art film divisions, and in the end they will be happier."

Will anyone listen?

Hear, hear! As with most of our major issues today, the root cause of it all comes down to good ol' fashioned capitalism. As unrealistic as it may seem for studios to put the cultural importance of art ahead of making their stockholders happy, it's also undeniable that studios lose money on films all the time. Rather than committing vast amounts of resources to lost causes, Gray's suggestion that they instead invest in smaller and more meaningful films instead sounds downright reasonable.

Will any studios actually listen to this plea? Probably not, but sometimes it's just nice to hear it all summed up so straightforwardly. It's a great time to love movies, don't get it wrong ... but the state of the industry could be so much more improved, too. It's hard to dispute that James Gray has the right idea.