Just before the preview screening of “1917,” the World War I drama seemingly filmed in one continuous shot, the continuous shooting in the Mideast dramatically ramped up anew.
So those awaiting the war story on the big screen scrolled through a small-screen barrage of missives about a barrage of missiles Iran had shot at U.S. bases in Iraq.
Then, an increasingly unique event happened: Phones were shut off and a shared cultural experience occurred.
“1917” is riveting content regardless of the context of breaking news. But at that moment, many moviegoers were likely comparing present-day communication about combat with the plotline of two Great War-era British soldiers on a mission to deliver a life-or-death message to the trenches.
Today’s asymmetric tactics have mostly replaced trench warfare. And except in rare cases, modern militaries are tethered by the technological transformation that has changed everything else in the world — including (inconsequentially, of course, compared to combat) watching movies.
That fact was quantified in December’s Golden Globe nominations and Monday’s Academy Award nominations. Netflix led both slates, garnering 34 film and TV Golden Globe nods and 24 nominations for the Feb. 9 Oscars, which only honor movies.
While some traditional studios were right behind, Hollywood’s plot twist is set: Movie moguls can’t just think traditionally as a torrent of streaming services quickly shift film’s cultural and commercial models.
Netflix received its first Best Picture nod last year — the sublime “Roma,” which lost in an upset to “Green Book.” This year it has two: “The Irishman,” director Martin Scorsese’s latest mob movie, and “Marriage Story,” the divorce drama that ran a scant few weeks in theaters, reflecting the breakup of movies’ monetary model that dominated for decades.
The commercial context is evident in data compiled by the Economist. Comparing investment in cinematic output to previous spectacular speculative spending like railways in the 1860s, Detroit’s auto industry in the 1940s, or the frenetic fracking investment in recent years, it calculates that more than $100 billion a year is now spent on content — more than what’s spent on the oil industry.
Since 2000 just three media firms — Netflix, Disney and WarnerMedia — have plugged $250 billion into programming, with much of it eventually destined for streaming services like the new Disney+, which hopes to eclipse Netflix with the cultural cannon (and canon) fodder of Disney classics, Marvel movies, the Star Wars empire (including the suddenly ubiquitous Baby Yoda) and more.
Thus the accompanying era of “peak TV” — 532 scripted series streamed or broadcast last year, a 52% spike since 2013. There’s high demand for movie production, too, especially for international markets: The 2019 global box office set a record, with a 2% rise to $42.5 billion (the North American box office, however, dropped 4% from 2018’s record).
Gains were seen in several European countries and Asian nations like South Korea, home of Bong Joon-ho, director of the inequality parable “Parasite,” a dark horse to become the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture (it seems likely, if not a lock, to win Best International Feature Film).
Much of the worldwide box-office boom is because of the pop from Marvel movies like “Avengers: Endgame,” which brought in a record $2.8 billion. But because commerce doesn’t always mirror culture, it wasn’t a Marvel movie but one featuring a DC character that got an Oscar nod: “Joker,” which took in over $1 billion. (“It Chapter Two,” another film about a frightening clown, scared up $472 million worldwide.)
As seems to happen with increasing frequency, Oscar contender controversy abounds this year: Expect #OscarsSoWhite to trend again since Cynthia Erivo (“Harriet”) is the only nonwhite actor up for Best Actor or Best Actress awards. And because the Academy seems to favor films that suggest seriousness, if not gravitas, like “1917” and “The Irishman,” it was surprising (and inspiring, to some) that the non-genre-conforming “Jojo Rabbit” was among the nine nominees.
But most of the post-nomination contention isn’t about genre, but gender and representation: “Little Women” got a nod, but no women were among Best Director nominees after Greta Gerwig got snubbed.
In fact, movies with mostly male story lines stole the lion’s share of Best Picture nods, including “Ford v Ferrari” and “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” which Best Actor nominee Leonardo DiCaprio called a “love letter to Los Angeles” and a “celebration of cinema.” The nostalgic vibe may resonate beyond actors and include execs longing for long-form films to still mostly run on the big screen. (Well, maybe not “The Irishman.” It’s three-and-a-half-hour running time may make some glad it’s on Netflix.)
Indeed, in a society riven with divisions and at a time of increasing isolation exacerbated by technological transformations (they’re iPhones, not wePhones, after all), a rare shared experience can connect people unexpectedly, as the “1917” screening did.
But streaming is here to stay. And that’s good, since it means movies are, too. And not just blockbusters, but more modest movies and foreign films and other entries that can find distribution outside the Cineplex. Sure, there’s still magic, and at times even majesty, in an epic projected on the big screen. But streaming means that film, the most accessible of art forms, is more available to more people in more ways, which in itself is magic.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.