One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 37
By Laurence Lerman
Yes, yes, movie theaters are back, with a host of new movies to fill ’em. Hollywood is cautiously letting out a collective sigh of relief as the horrors of 2020 slowly recede into the past.
You would sigh, too: As reported by the research firm Comscore, the U.S. film industry suffered an unprecedented 80% slump in box office revenue in North America in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic closed movie theaters and studios held back the release of scores of new films. The North American box office brought in $2.2 billion in 2020, compared with $11.4 billion in 2019, marking a nearly 40-year low.
But that was then. And this is now.
Over the four-day Memorial Day weekend, North American cinemas pulled in nearly $100 million in ticket sales, the best weekend performance for theaters since the start of the pandemic last year. And though the box office brought in less than half of the $232 million that it rang up over the same holiday weekend in 2019, the holiday weekend was a hopeful sign for the industry this summer.
According to the movie industry database The Numbers (www.thenumbers.com), there are 18 new feature films set to open exclusively in theaters this month and another 18-or-so that are premiering on streaming services. That’s three times the rollout 50 years ago, when 12 films opened in theaters across the nation and streaming wasn’t even a dream.
As for the actual movies that are finally set to open in theaters, well, it looks like everything old may be new again, in the tradition of the cinema’s most popular and reliable film genres. A survey of what’s on tap for theaters in June, 2021 reveals that the slate has a lot in common with what rolled out to movie houses 50 years ago this month, in June, 1971.
Among this month’s releases, there is a big musical (In The Heights, based on the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegria Hudes); a handful of horror movies, including the latest installment in a popular demonic possession franchise (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It); a foreign language arthouse drama (Undine from Germany’s Christian Petzold); a pair of high-end franchise action flicks, both offering a heavy dose of fast cars and high-speed hijinks (F9 and The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard); an offbeat comedy-drama road adventure about an Florida stripper (Zola) and a trio of animated family films, including Pixar’s latest, this one set in the Italian Riviera (Luca), a Cuban-flavored musical adventure (Vivo), and Spirit: Untamed, a western melodrama about a bronco and his Native American gal pal spun off from DreamWorks Animation’s 2002 Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron).
Of the dozen films released a half-century ago, there are a good number of titles that directly match up with contemporary counterparts, reaffirming that while matters of race, politics and overall national mood are always changing, the movies remain a genre-driven commercial art form. The specifics may alter in terms of storytelling and style—and, certainly, when it comes to the newly acknowledged need for diversity in casting and the emergence of new filmmaking voices—but general audiences will always respond to a clearly delineated genre offering. Give’ em a song, a car chase, a foreign affair, a quirky character and a bunch of hummable songs appropriate for the whole family, and they’ll at least be initially satisfied, knowing what they’re going to sink their teeth into.
Just as this month’s release schedule offers the usual genre mix that audiences have come to expect, the June ’71 slate offered much of the same, There was a musical (Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory); a couple of horror movies, one featuring moviedom’s most famous monsters (Horror of Frankenstein) and the other a lesser entry in the era’s unhinged grand dames craze (What’s the Matter with Helen? with Debbie Reynolds and Shelly Winters); a glossy imported Italian language drama (Luchino Visonti’s Death in Venice with Dirk Bogarde); a superstar-driven racecar adventure (Le Mans with Steve McQueen); a pair of offbeat comedy-dramas (They Might be Giants with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward and Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me! starring Dustin Hoffman as a pop song writer); and a pair of westerns (Robert Altman’s revisionist masterwork McCabe & Mrs. Miller with Warren Beatty and Julie Christie and Blake Edwards’ forgotten Wild Rovers).
Still, even with the genre commonalities between this year’s June rollout and that of yesteryear, there are some marked differences between them.
Following June 1971’s absence of any animated offerings (though the beloved family flick Willy Wonka is as colorfully cartoonish as it gets—and it has songs!), the most glaring difference for me would be June 2021’s dearth of westerns (not counting the animated Spirit: Untamed). The Seventies were the last decade to enjoy a steady stream of westerns, which were riding particularly high in 1971. There were some 30 of them released to the theaters that year, including such choice cuts as Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, Frank Perry’s Doc, Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand, George Sherman’s Big Jake starring John Wayne and Don Siegel's gothic-drenched The Beguiled with Clint Eastwood.
But western lovers shouldn’t despair, as there are a couple more on tap for 2021. The first, the Jeymes Samuels-directed The Harder They Fall, about an African-American outlaw who reunites his old gang to join him on the vengeance trailer, is a Netflix title tentatively scheduled to stream this fall. In the second, the neo-western Cry Macho, director-producer-star Clint Eastwood portrays a former rodeo star who’s hired to return a young boy in Mexico back to his father in the United States. Distributed by Eastwood’s longtime studio Warner Bros, it’s slated to open in theaters and simultaneously on the studio’s HBO Max streaming service in late October.
Whatever the effects of the slowly retreating pandemic may be come this fall, if there are any plans to send Cry Macho exclusively to HBO Max without a theatrical premiere date, then someone at Warner Bros. is going to have inform the 91-year-old director, Mr. Eastwood, of their intentions.
Does anyone have the guts to do that? Would anyone have had the guts to do that 50 years ago?
More proof that, yeah, there are some things that really never change.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.