The 13th of the Major Arcana cards, Death, is easily the single most misunderstood card in all of tarot. There have been so many B-movies that have used it as a shorthand for oh no this character is going to die!!! and tarot card readers usually have to quickly reassure their clients that that is not what the card means. Yes, the Grim Reaper is on the artwork of most renditions of the card throughout its history. And yes, some newer publishers have just thrown up their hands in defeat and renamed it to something less ominous-sounding. But the fact remains that Death, in tarot, does not mean The End of Everything. It means an end, for sure. But more importantly, it means a new beginning. Leaving behind one status quo, and moving to a “new” normal.
Last Sunday, Maxance Vincent shared the grim news that Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny – a movie I didn’t even feign interest in when I had to preview it earlier this year – disappointed at the box office, drawing in “only” $60 million during the 4th of July weekend against an estimated production budget of nearly $300 million. And that’s just to make the movie; whenever you see the budget of some gigantic franchise tentpole, the published production budget is always anywhere between 25-50% lower than the total costs when you include residuals, marketing, licensing deals, legal issues that nearly always pop up, etc. So if Disney is lucky, it might break even with Indiana Jones’ supposedly final adventure after over four decades of putting on the fedora.
This is, of course, not an unusually bad development for the movie business this year. After all, The Flash, which I didn’t even bother to preview at all, is on track to becoming one of the most embarrassing box office bombs in the history of Warner Bros. And keep in mind this is on the heels of Shazam! Fury of the Gods also tanking at the box office. Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is doing slightly better, though it is currently the lowest-grossing Transformers movie ever and has about a 50/50 shot at eventually overtaking Bumblebee to become only the second-lowest-grossing installment of the franchise. Don’t let me pretend this is some mass rejection of all long-running franchises in favor of new big budget tentpoles, either. After all, Elemental – following the Zootopia model of “appallingly thought-out metaphor for racism that inadvertently conveys a justification for racism according to the in-universe logic of its own premise” animated message movie – suffered the worst opening weekend in the studio’s history.
The summer isn’t over, yet. There’s some hope for Paramount in the form of Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One, while Warner Bros and Universal are making the bizarre decision to have their most anticipated releases of the summer directly compete against each other on the same weekend. But it’s hard not to see some of the entertainment industry recession fears bandied about at the start of 2023 as being at least partially realized as the summer goes on. Audiences have just not been interested in most of the big spectacle event releases. Even the ones that have been a success later came with an asterisk of workplace abuse, as we unfortunately learned in the aftermath of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse becoming a huge hit and an instant frontrunner for the Best Animated Feature Academy Award.
Oh, and the entire Writers Guild of America is still on strike, with SAG-AFTRA possibly joining them in a few months. Are we looking at a possible entertainment industry collapse soon? And – this is going to sound unbelievably callous but just hear me out – should we hope for one?
No one ever wants to see people lose their jobs or face further insecurity due to major career setbacks. I would not even entertain the idea of a possible “crash” in Hollywood as a good thing to look forward to… unless the circumstances in Hollywood become dire. I’ve spoken before about the industry’s acceleration toward unsustainable business models and priorities that are not remotely in the interests of artists or consumers, and I have to say it’s only getting worse. Filmmakers, writers, actors, and craftsmen are being worked harder and paid less. Streaming shows that are successful and beloved get canceled after two seasons to hit some arbitrary algorithmic milestone on a digital balance sheet. Warner Bros. is attempting yet another superhero cinematic universe because Marvel made a lot of money off that model so why not just copy it over and over until audiences feel browbeaten enough to turn out for it? Layoffs and desperate cost-cutting measures have been happening everywhere. It’s becoming impossible for even successful artists to make much of a living unless they’re a product of nepotism. It all just sucks for everyone who isn’t a myopically profit-driven studio executive right now.
I’m getting late 1960’s vibes, when a series of irresponsible decisions, along with long-simmering pushback against exploitative treatment of writers and actors and filmmakers, directly led to mainstays of blockbuster production like historical epics and big glitzy musicals declining in commercial viability. Audiences were getting sick of the increasingly bloated, cynical forms of empty spectacle that the entertainment industry was shoveling in their faces. Oh, it didn’t reflect in the box office for a while… until it did.
But then something remarkable happened. See, when movies like Paint Your Wagon and Hello, Dolly! were underperforming, smaller but bolder movies like Bonnie and Clyde and The Graduate were cleaning up at the box office. Out of the destruction of a bloated, aesthetically calcified status quo came a new wave of some of the best films this country has ever produced, and an unprecedented increase in the visibility of international cinema as well. Granted, the “New Hollywood” era was not all sunshine and roses – all too often in that time, “auteur theory” was trotted about as an excuse for directors to be abusive, especially towards actresses – but the very suggestion of movies like Midnight Cowboy, The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Taxi Driver becoming Oscar-winning critical and financial hits would have been inconceivable even a decade prior.
Just like the notion of a movie like this grossing over $100 million and winning the Academy Award for Best Picture would have been unthinkable in 2013:
I’m not a tarot reader. Or, at least, not a regular one. But if I were to perform a reading on the state of the entertainment landscape today, I would hope to pull a Death card. Not out of peevish nihilism, not because I want anyone in Hollywood to suffer, but because there is already too much suffering to want this status quo to continue. The center cannot hold. I want to pull a Death card so that we can look forward to a new normal, where box office draws are iconoclastic filmmakers instead of recognizable brands. Let this just be the unfortunate prelude to something better, something more hopeful and creative for both creators and consumers. Let this be a signal for Millennials and Gen-X’ers to finally grow up and let our culture move on from musty pop icons, most of which are just spinning their wheels these days, not even sure about what to do with themselves. Let’s pull the Death card on empty, surface-level “diversity” efforts that drive traffic to the worthless rantings of Awards Radar’s favorite special boy and shift in favor of real diversity, where, as Quinta Brunson so eloquently put it, studios are “actually green-lighting the stories that naturally bring those people to the forefront.”
Like the Death card, seeing what’s happening in Hollywood seems ominous… but maybe it will leave us with something better in its wake. If we demand that.