This year hasn’t provided much in the way of joy or happiness, lately. From war to inflation to energy shortages to mass shootings to an age of partisanship where one party has abandoned all pretense of sane parliamentary governance and the other one is clinging to outdated notions of civic pleasantries at the expense of our future, 2022 has been kind of a bummer so far.
There hasn’t even been much to celebrate in terms of the movies this year. Sure, the box office success of Everything Everywhere All At Once has been wonderful to see, even though I do worry that Hollywood will just look at it and go “more multiverses!” and not examine what actually made it popular (but we’ll get to that in a minute…). Audiences embracing Top Gun: Maverick bringing back the old fashioned entertainment value of broad whiz-bang spectacle and unironic emotional earnestness was a nice surprise, even if conservatives immediately hijacked it by declaring the movie’s success a victory for “non-woke cinema” (though you just know those little twerps would have absolutely declared the film “woke” because of the inclusion of a woman and a black man on the strike team if it wasn’t a hit).
But one of the most unreservedly joyous moments of 2022 in terms of movies, for me at least, was when a major Hollywood studio spent actual money to bring back one of their duds to theaters over this:
That tweet, which went viral and prompted a tidal wave of other tweets with their own spin on the “It’s Morbin’ Time!” jokes, was hilariously misinterpreted by rich old people in charge of Sony Pictures who have no idea how the internet works as some resurgence of popularity of Morbius. A movie that no one liked, not that many people watched, and fewer people truly remember, and only spawned that viral social media sensation because we all enjoyed mocking its embarrassing failure as both art and commercial product. These executives, who probably make more in a month than anyone reading this article makes in a year, saw how many people were tweeting about Morbius and thought “Oh look! People are talking about this movie again! Look at the social media engagement! Line go up! Line go up! Surely that means if we spend a lot of money to re-release it in theaters, and maybe even ADR that ‘It’s Morbin’ Time!’ quote, it will be a big hit from all the new fans who will definitely pay money to see something ironically!”
Shockingly, this did not work out. The entire haul of The Great Morbius Re-Release last weekend ended up barely scraping $300,000 across over 1,000 theaters. But as funny as this comical inability to read a room was, I’m going to let you in on a little secret: no one in Hollywood, or in any segment of the entertainment industry, knows how to gauge success or popularity, anymore. They are flying just as blind even more than they usually do in this industry, and that’s going to have serious consequences for how future projects are greenlit and marketed.
Just look at Netflix, for example. They’ve been struggling a lot lately after a reported 200,000 subscriber loss was revealed last quarter, resulting in their biggest drop in stock value in almost twenty years. And just like those out-of-touch Sony executives, Netflix head honchos seem to be misunderstanding the reasons for their struggle to retain an interest in their streaming service in the midst of growing competition. Because while $175 million is an admittedly ridiculous amount of money to spend on a four-hour mournful crime drama about regretting the choices you made in your life as you enter old age, The Irishman was most certainly not a “vanity project.”
No, Martin Scorsese is not why Netflix is losing subscribers, but in a way, I can’t blame them for refusing to see what’s actually going on, because to do that would be to acknowledge the unsustainable boom-and-bust cycles of all of these volatile subscriber-based, investor-driven, infinite-growth-dependent entertainment business models. When the bubble was inflating, the money was rolling in, and the blank checks were being written out of the assumption that they would just keep growing their subscriber base forever because the internet seems infinite to these old-school studio heads… man, Netflix was a treat. You could enjoy entire back catalogs of classic sitcoms that Netflix didn’t have to spend money developing and producing (that they no longer have the rights to) and enjoy expensive Marvel superhero shows (that now belong to Disney+) and get passion projects from acclaimed filmmakers like Jane Campion and Alfonso Cuarón financed (and get passion projects from filmmakers like Rebecca Hall buried and abandoned… yes, I’m still mad about that!).
But that bubble eventually bursts. The line doesn’t go up forever. The old model of selling entertainment products was… not easier, necessarily, but definitely simpler and more directly reflective of audience demand; just look at the ticket and home video/DVD sales. Hard to get much more direct feedback than that! But now the internet, and especially the internet in the post-COVID age of streaming dominance, has complicated these metrics of success. Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix comedy special saw huge engagement on Twitter and Facebook and all the other social media sites during the week of its release… is that because it was genuinely popular with viewers or was everyone talking about how much they hated his self-pitying attitude and boring old transphobic rants? And does it even matter, really? Hate-watching is still watching, right? Line still go up, right?
And let’s be clear – that period when the line is going up and up and up and you have all the money in the world to throw at $30-million-per-episode sci-fi shows and dozens of expensive summer blockbuster-sized feature films is a honeymoon for artists and writers and craftspeople. But the honeymoon never lasts forever, despite the seeming belief from Reed Hastings that it would. And I’m not picking on Netflix as some Goofus to Disney+ or Hulu’s Gallant. They were just the first to get into the subscription-based streaming service game and so they’re the first to see their bubble start to pop. It’s only a matter of time before those other services experience the same thing, and then Jeff Bezos will realize that spending over $1 billion on a Lord of the Rings spinoff show wasn’t exactly a financially prudent decision, and then you’ll see the same aggressive cut-cut-cut-cut-cut actions at those services that have already decimated Netflix’s animation department and introduced crappy ad-supported options in a desperate bid to stay profitable. It’s only a matter of time before the bill comes due and the higher-ups order them to raise prices and lower expenses, because that line must keep going up even when they hit that inevitable limit on their reach to potential new subscribers.
It’s all predicated on the inescapable reality that most of the executives and decision-makers have no idea how to read consumer feedback from the internet, or how to responsibly sustain an entertainment business anymore. Maybe they never really did, but boy is it especially apparent now. They don’t know what to take a risk on, how to grow and keep a loyal audience, or which of their content brought in engaged audiences who loved what they were watching versus people who just passively had Thunder Force on in the background and did not think twice about canceling their subscription at the first offering of a better library. The only thing they know how to do is make the line go up, and in a business like this, that line can’t go up forever.
Credit where it’s due, though: Jared Leto really was committed to the role of Dr. Michael Morbius. He apparently spent fifteen years workshopping this character in preparation for the film. Seriously, you can learn all about his process by Googling “Jared Leto 15.”