- Words Colette Fountain
As the battle between critical acclaim and widespread popularity continues to rage for filmmakers, maybe at the end of the day we all just want escapism?
Every year during awards season there’s the same backlash, as people argue that the nominees don’t accurately reflect the popular films of the year. It seems to be the recurring trade off for filmmakers – do they make their films popular, or critically acclaimed? The Venn diagram of films that fall into both of these categories seems incredibly limited.
Yet among the nominees this year, there is an underdog: Top Gun: Maverick. Hardly an arthouse film, Tom Cruise’s action packed drama drew in audiences who were both nostalgic for the original, and younger audiences who had probably learnt about the film from TikTok videos about Miles Teller. Top Gun managed to find this sweet spot. It supposedly brought in over $1.4 billion at the box office, a stark contrast to last year’s Oscar winner, CODA which made only $2 million against its $10 million budget.
This is the downfall of independent films. While they usually receive critical acclaim, they very rarely resonate with the mass audiences needed to fill seats. Without funding from investors, less art films get made and the cycle continues to spiral down until we are left with a film scene overly saturated with the kind of underdeveloped, rushed, plot hole-filled media produced by huge companies.
Saying that, Marvel films aren’t for me. I am not their target demographic. Just because I don’t enjoy Marvel however, doesn’t make them bad. I understand that it has a place in the contemporary film industry, and the ways that Disney push the boundaries of CGI and special effects is a great move in the future of film.
However, as funding for these blockbuster films increases, we lose out on the important work of independent filmmakers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gone to Odeon to try and see an independent film and instead found that the latest Marvel release is occupying nearly every screen in the theatre with showings almost every hour. I consider myself lucky when I find one screening for an independent film that isn’t at an absurd time.
Independent cinemas are where independent films thrive but this pairing seems counter-productive. Without funding independent cinema will die. The only way to ensure they get that funding, is through finding a large audience to earn enough money to convince investors that these projects are worth investing in. While I’d love to argue that the artistic value of these films is enough to sustain them, unfortunately financiers don’t see it that way.
These independent films address issues which are important to humanity, whether they’re alluding to the Irish Civil War, or exploring the complex relationships between fathers and daughters, or addiction, these films resonate and connect with audiences.
One of the most effective ways that independent filmmakers can boost viewership is through casting. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, The Lost Daughter starred both Olivia Colman and Dakota Johnson. Similarly, Damien Chazelle’s latest project has a star-studded cast headed by Margot Robbie and Brad Pitt.
But again, we come back to the issue of budgeting. Securing these names can often cost a small fortune, blowing most of the budget in a risky move that might leave directors with few resources to actually produce the film. In contrast, the slightly more gimmicky films that seem to attract mass audiences can use lesser known actors – audiences go to see these films for the plots, not for the quality of the acting.
It’s a phenomenon we can see with the popularity of films like Cocaine Bear and M3gan. When these were first announced, I couldn’t tell who the intended audience was – the trailers were so vague as to whether they were satire, or just so bad that they were good. And yet, these are the films that audiences show up for.
Ultimately, viewers want an experience that they enjoy, and if they get this enjoyment through watching a drug-tripping bear, or an all-singing-all-dancing robot, then who am I to stop them. There are enough stresses in the real world that maybe we don’t want to be confronted with the harsh hitting realities independent filmmakers so often try to explore.
Maybe, at the end of the day, amidst political turmoil, all we want is to switch off. To be completely entranced in a film that is so ridiculous it’s almost comical, rather than one which tries to say something deeper about the world around us. This hyper-intellectualism in independent cinema can be incredibly off-putting for audiences who are new to the subject. Complex scripts, bizarre cinematography and overwhelming scores can make it easier to stick to the simple world of blockbuster film.
So while in an ideal world, there would be a place for both, until financiers start to recognise the value of investing in independent cinema, it’s probably going to continue to be inaccessible. Although companies like A24 are thriving, it’s important for consumers to prove to these investors that independent cinema has a place outside the elitist room of award shows. But on the flip side, escapism is one of the greatest things that cinema offers us and as much as I love arthouse cinema, sometimes after a long day of work I just want to laugh.