Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s new film By the Sea hits the UK tomorrow. It was released in the States a scant few weeks ago, where it died on arrival. Mainstream audiences, who revel in the tabloid column inches both movie stars generate, didn’t care to watch the power couple’s perceived pretentious film project, and more educated audiences stayed away from it for exactly the same reasons.
So now it’s up to European audiences to salvage the lacklustre fortunes of By the Sea, which seems possible because the film is a paean to the 1970s art movies of filmmakers like Antonioni, and Visconti; seriously sophisticated films set in picture postcard locations in southern European resorts that feature characters laden with marital ennui. It is, in a way, highbrow cinema for audiences with postgraduate diplomas in humanities.
Yet By the Sea is an even bigger anomaly considering its bearings. It’s a proper Hollywood studio movie made by Universal Pictures that cost more than $10 million to produce (and even more to distribute internationally). There is an argument that a picture like By the Sea would have sought art-house-crossover fortunes even up until the last decade, but in this current climate of anti-intelligence and low creative risk-taking in Hollywood, the existence of a film like this is both astounding and thoroughly perplexing.
By the Sea isn’t a terrible film - no way as bad as US commentators will have you believe, but it’s misguided on almost every level imaginable, from its intentions as a profound homage to serious European cinema, to its assumptions that movie stars still matter. On paper, the onscreen coupling of real life partners Jolie and Pitt must have seemed like a deal worth making for the studio, but the reality of that assumption has materialised in a significant financial write-off.
It all points to the bigger issue of audiences not wanting to see anything other than branded blockbusters all year round. The give and take was that the film industry operates on a basis where the summer period is dominated with expensive high concept blockbusters and the winter brings about prestige fare designed to win awards for movie stars and filmmakers, while also bringing in a princely box-office sum for its investors. Think of it as the summer was for the kids and the winter for the grownups, but in an era where middle-aged men await the new Star Wars film while decked out in licensed Jedi accoutrements, you know something has changed in our cultural expectations of cinema.
There is a risk here that mainstream cinema is losing all sense of plurality, thus becoming a one-note manufacturer of oversized industrial products that delight in spectacle and immaturity. Sandra Bullock’s turn in Our Brand Is Crisis, Michael portrayal of the eponymous Apple founder in Steve Jobs, and star presence in the already discussed By the Sea, are just four reminders of A-list casualties shunned by audiences not entirely swayed by their significances. This month will see awards-baiting performances by Will Smith in Concussion, Jennifer Lawrence in Joy and Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, all serious studio films desperate to be thought-provoking features that, in turn, make few bob due to the fact that they are original and credible pictures.
The Revenant is a particularly intriguing project because one assumes that its fate is less assured than any film released this year. A savagely brutal period piece with an adult rating that was filmed entirely on location using only natural daylight; The Revenant seems both a technical tour de force and experimentally feature. This ought to be the movie event of the season as it stars a true movie icon in DiCaprio and its director, Alejandro G. , won the Oscar this year for Birdman, but that may not be the case. The Revenant’s complex production and taxing artistry meant the film went massively overschedule and punishingly over budget. It cost $135 million to make (it was meant to originally cost a thrifty $60 million), which means that The Revenant will have to do blockbuster-type playability to break even. Now it should be mentioned that this is a film featuring sequences of mauling, castration and disembowelment – all in separate scenes. If audiences were resistant to check out a movie about the origins of their ubiquitous iPads, then The Revenant seems an even tougher sell.
It all points to where cinema as we know it is headed. Francis Ford Coppola, the director of The Godfather trilogy and Apocalypse Now, while speaking at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival, contemplated the future of his medium. The filmmaker was cautiously optimistic, saying: “We have had so many great films made so far, it’s hard to imagine that films won’t always be like that. But you can’t get there without experimentation. And experimentation means you might fail.”
This perhaps suggests that cinema will have to become something more malleable in the future, a fluid medium that breaks the limitations of the silver screen and redefines our perceptions about the televisual experience. Cinema will have to take narrative risks and review the ways in which it courts audiences. Its salvation will depend on us readjusting our collective views on how cinema is accessed and valued. It can no longer be exclusively pigeonholed by filmmakers, executives, distributors, booking schedulers and exhibitors, and has to be better defined by our demands as consumers. In that sense cinema must no longer be the preserve of movie theatres, not if it wants to survive and remain relevant. It must become a prevailing entity that equally occupies the big screens in multiplexes and flat screens at home. There needs to be options for audiences or else the only thing that will suffer is cinema itself. Likewise, we needn’t look down on movies that bypass a theatrical run in favour of streaming services, while also not labelling exclusive cinema releases as soulless mainstream corporate products. It’s all cinema.
Coppola himself best sums the final word: “There is no more film, there is no more television – there is cinema. And it can be everywhere and anywhere and it can do anything.”