With Stephen King and Andy Muschietti’s It continuing to break records on a near-daily basis, I thought it was the perfect time to dive into a column that’s been kicking around in my head for a while, now. As millions of people continue to flock to theaters to catch the new horror remake/instant classic, there – as always – remains a sector of others who stand on the sidelines and refuse to participate. They have their reasons. And they aren’t necessarily bad ones, certainly not from their own personal perspectives. Maybe they don’t like to go to the movies (for some crazy reason that will never make sense to me). Maybe they don’t like horror movies, in particular, or are scared of clowns.
But, as with every event film that comes down the line, by giving in to those excuses, those people are missing out on much more than “just a movie”. They’re missing out on more than special effects or music or performances or elaborate sets and costumes or memorable characters. By opting out of these films, one is making the active choice to lose touch with where we are as a global society and culture.
Most people would probably agree that, in order to be fully informed on the current cultural climate, whether it be local, regional, national, or worldwide, all one must do is stay up to date on the news. Whether they’re watching the evening news, reading social media posts from news outlets, devouring the newspaper (or some equivalent), or anything of the sort, then they are fully informed and understand where we are as a collective unit. Why would anyone even challenge that notion, right? Well, I question it. And I do so because it’s a logical fallacy.
Let me very clear about the fact that I wholeheartedly agree that keeping up with the news is immensely important. People should do at least some of those activities that I mentioned above. Having knowledge about the events that are occurring around the world on a daily basis is absolutely necessary for being able to contribute and participate as a responsible member of your society and your community. This column is NOT “Watch Movies Instead of the News”. Rather, this is a version of “Watch Movies and the News”. Because, as important as getting the information provided by the media is, it’s only one piece of the puzzle.
When one hears a story that’s being reported on a large scale, who are those stories about? With the exception of the human interest stories that are often tacked on at the end of a broadcast or tucked away towards the back of the paper, the stories that are widely reported upon regard the exceptional among us. Said stories concern our elected leaders. They concern the unstable tyrants who threaten the safety of any who refuse to bend the knee. They concern the maniacal mass-murderer. They concern the athlete with the multi-million-dollar contract or the movie star with the mansion in Beverly Hills. These stories don’t concern the laypeople. These stories don’t concern the common person. These stories are the cause. They are not the effect.
Plenty of movies come along that are expected to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But then there are the occasional films that aren’t expected to do as well as they do. These films – the overperformers – are the true “event” films. These films are often expected to do little-to-nothing or perhaps perform moderately well based on the statistics of similar films that have preceded them. But then something happens. Something unexpected. Something special. And people are shocked. People are bewildered. Well . . . most people. Because there are also those who have been listening. There are those who pay attention to people around them. And those people are quietly saying, “I saw this coming.”
They are the people who feel an unusual groundswell leading up to a given film’s release. They are the people who understand that many factors contribute to a film’s success – including demand, nostalgia, and the established fanbase if the film is based on a licensed property – but those things can only take a film so far. They are the people to whom it becomes apparent that something else is making its presence known. It’s more than a film being “good”. Wind River is probably, objectively speaking, the best film in theaters, right now. And it’s doing solid business expected of a film of its type. Event films have something extra.
I personally suspected It was going to surpass projected numbers because I had picked up on a couple tidbits of information. Firstly, when the trailer was released online, it broke the record for single-day views, a record that 2017’s Beauty and the Beast – another huge event film that exceeded all box office expectations – had set only months before. But, then, something else caught my attention, just days before It hit theaters.
Fandango released their statistics regarding presales for It. The report mentioned that the film was already breaking records, but that actually happens fairly often with online sales, so it didn’t raise any flags for me. Something else did, however. Included in their report was an interesting note that only fifty-seven percent of their sample of consumers who pre-purchased tickets to the film described themselves as horror movie fans. That’s just a handful over half. It has been marketed as the horror movie to end all horror movies. So why are so many people who aren’t horror movie buffs going to see this film?
That’s the common thread that all of these event movies share. They are four-quadrant entertainment spectacles that bring in paying customers who sit well outside of their target demographics. Much of the time, they tend to be comic book superhero films. But not every comic book superhero film blows the box office away. Yet, when the character and/or narrative presented are in sync with the current sociological climate, magic happens, regardless of the inspirational source of the content.
We just passed the seventeenth anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Back at the end of 2001, the world was on edge and the United States, in particular, was downtrodden, depressed, and terrified. The regular people of the world needed something to believe in. They needed a symbol of hope and optimism. They needed a reminder that good was still out there. And on May 3 of the following year, they got it. They got Spider-Man. Blowing away all expectations, the film was the first to ever gross over $100 million in its domestic opening weekend, eventually going on to gross over $820 million, worldwide.
People also worried for their children and their children’s future during that tumultuous time. They desired to feel that their children could remain uncorrupted and strong in the face of overwhelming and omnipresent evil. Less than two months following the same attacks that preceded Spider-Man came Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone. Naturally, the fans of the book series flocked to the film, but so did many, many others. I know because I was one of them. Harry Potter was thrust upon mainstream audiences just when he was needed. And as a result, the film grossed almost $975 million worldwide.
In late-2015 to early-2016, the American political landscape was volatile, to put it mildly. The country had been deeply divided by controversial and provocative candidates gearing up for the impending presidential election. Split down the middle, virtually every citizen in the country felt as if their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs were being encroached upon by the opposing side and that if there was no conformity, then they, themselves, were un-American. And the potential aftershocks of the eventual outcome would hold repercussions for the entire world.
Then, in February of 2016 . . . along . . . came . . . Deadpool. While the film was much in-demand and wildly entertaining, Deadpool himself also represented the ultimate in anti-authority figures. His message was clear: screw convention; I’m going to be, do, and say what I want and that makes me awesome. Deadpool held no apparent political views. He didn’t pick a side. Yet, he resonated with everyone who felt frustrated by the others around them. He was his own side. He was a metaphorical island. Original domestic opening weekend predictions had the film pegged at approximately $65 million. The final opening weekend tally for North America came in at $152 million leading to a final worldwide cume of just over $783 million, making it the highest-grossing R-rated film in history.
I could go on. There have been so many more, spread throughout all of film history. This year alone, in addition to It ($371 million worldwide and counting on a $35 million budget), both Beauty and the Beast ($1.26 billion worldwide) and Wonder Woman (approximately $818 million worldwide) defied all conventional logic and massively overperformed. Beauty and the Beast was unquestionably launched by nostalgia but the fact that it’s a story about looking underneath the surface to find someone worthy of love that was released just months after the conclusion of the most hateful election in American history can’t be casually ignored. And I, myself, got swept up in the significance of Wonder Woman and laid out all of the reasons for its cultural relevance and resonance in a very personal column, this summer (which can be found here).
My point should be clear. As I alluded to, earlier, the news itself is the cause. These event films are the effect. If one wants to know why people are feeling what they’re feeling, watch the news. If one wants to understand what they’re feeling and how to reach them, then they need to experience these films because they are the best gauge for where we are emotionally and mentally as a culture. The films are perceived escapes that are in reality appealing to our deepest needs, desires, and fears while also putting them on display for anyone who’s listening. And if you’re skipping these films, for any reason, then you aren’t listening and aren’t nearly as in the loop as you may believe.
You’ve undoubtedly noticed that I haven’t dissected the reasons for the way that It has penetrated the public zeitgeist. Well, I’m not going to. Come on, folks; I’m a teacher in my day job. Do you really think I’m going to do all of your work for you? Here’s your assignment: if you haven’t seen the film, get over your hang-ups and go. It’s fiction. Pennywise isn’t really coming to kill you. The violence isn’t real. And you can hear naughty words and be fine. If your kids can get through a day at middle school, you can survive a movie for two hours. The film isn’t really about Pennywise, anyway. It’s about the kids and the adults around them. (That’s my hint.) Once you’ve seen the film (and for those of you who already have, you may move to the head of the class), put your thinking caps on, ask yourself why it’s truly resonating, and then also ask yourself why it matters. Because it does. The films matter because they represent the people. And the cost of being better informed about the people is a mere nine American dollars (on average) plus a little analysis and reflection. Try it. You just might learn something about yourself along the way.
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