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A Hollywood Story

How the requirements of profit shaped 2023 for the film industry.

Hollywood Sign; Source: Pexels

The multi-billion dollar film industry encompasses a wide range of services, genres and firms. From indie horror to blockbuster action, audiences flock to the big screen to experience the magic. Unfortunately, malcontent seems to be brewing amongst the masses, and Disney’s unsuccessful 2023 releases stand as a prime example (i.e. The Marvels, Wish, Ant Man: Quantumania). But, 2023 also witnessed Barbie and Oppenheimer jointly destroy box office records and Everything Everywhere All At Once sweep the Academy Awards. Amid worker strikes and streaming wars, major Hollywood studios have forgotten the core values of cinema: creativity, innovation and boldness. While independent production studios akin to A24 meteorically step into the limelight, corporations envision movies as products instead of art. 

Film, as an art form, sits deeply within the roots of modern culture. Actors and directors garner fame and attention, enormous crowds converge to Hollywood amusement parks, millions of toys sell yearly, and catchy quotes become ingrained in topical memes. The over $100b global industry today presents multifaceted categories and subgenres, ranging from teen comedies and superhero flicks to Japanese animation and Korean dramas. With limitless imaginative potential, movies possess the power to stimulate any emotion. Unfortunately, corporate cinema currently prioritizes generic profit-making crowd-pleasers over projects with a unique and innovative vision.

While the ‘90s saw the rise of independent auteur cinema (such as Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction or the Coen brothers’ Fargo), and the 2000s witnessed the reach of Hollywood A-list stars (i.e. Will Smith and Tom Cruise), corporate big budgets dominated the 2010s. Movie franchises, meticulously planned to tell an interconnected story, drew large audiences to the theaters and became a cultural macro-phenomenon. Major film studios such as Warner Brothers and Sony earned great profits as they released sequels, prequels and spin-offs. And at the top of the hierarchy stood Disney. Namely, in 2019, the company released seven movies that grossed over $1b at the box office. However, audiences’ taste is mutating and Hollywood has yet to take notice.

Disney’s 2019 Releases; Source: Box Office Mojo

In fact, while Disney celebrated 100 years since its inception, 2023 saw seven of the company’s theatrical releases significantly underperform at the box office. Whether it was the latest Marvel release, the unnecessary Indiana Jones sequel or an unwanted live-action remake of The Little Mermaid, Disney’s releases struggled to capture large audiences. Moreover, other Hollywood studios also experienced underwhelming box office performances: The Flash and Blue Beetle from Warner Brothers and Paramount’s Mission Impossible 7 all fell short of initial projections. Entertainment corporations have lost their Midas touch. As corporate cinema grows increasingly formulaic and unimaginative, today’s fatigued audiences select movies with greater skepticism and cautiousness. Streaming platforms, social media and rising ticket prices have greatly impacted the infrastructure of the film industry. The current landscape of cinema presents large corporations with endless obstacles (i.e. social media reception, streaming alternatives, inflated budgets), whilst offering great upside potential to smaller projects.


During 2023, the film industry underwent magnificent highs and disastrous lows. A wacky independent action comedy about taxes and parallel universes swept the Academy Awards. WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes lasted for months whilst negotiations with major Hollywood studios occurred. Two movies at complete ends of the cinematic spectrum shared the spotlight, dominating the media cycle. Disney celebrated a bitter centenary. By analyzing last year’s salient movies, a clear picture of the current state of cinema emerges. Creative dynamics within Hollywood are shifting. How can Disney and other major Hollywood studios adapt to changing standards and reclaim cultural importance?

The Fallen Titan

The Walt Disney Company holds both timeless classics and modern favorites amongst its catalog of intellectual properties. For decades, the industry titan has dominated popular culture with acclaimed masterpieces such as The Lion King and Tarzan, and beloved blockbusters, including Pirates of the Caribbean and Avengers. Furthermore, a history of smart acquisitions allowed the company to remain relevant through continuous renewal (Pixar, Lucasfilm, Hulu, Fox, Marvel). Sadly, in 2023, the tide has turned: Disney relinquished its crown on global box office market share for the first time since 2016, failed to release a $1b movie for the first time since 2014, closed its state-of-the-art $250 million Star Wars Hotel, and lost 7% of total Disney+ subscribers. Goliath has become David due to extravagant spending, mistaking audience demands, and a myopic release policy. Amongst last year’s failures, none shine brighter than Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny

Disney’s latest Indiana Jones sequel starkly contrasts the glory of the original 80s trilogy, aptly illustrating the media giant’s current hardships. The Indiana Jones franchise holds great significance in Hollywood history. Raiders of the Lost Ark, an exciting entry in the early wave of 70s and 80s blockbusters, became the highest-grossing film of 1981. With the legendary Steven Spielberg directing and the visionary George Lucas writing and producing, the movie captured audiences and convinced critics. Such success spurred the development of a trilogy, which expanded on the accomplishments of the first installment, garnering fame and praise. The exciting action setpieces, charismatic performances, globetrotting stories and beautiful score cemented the trilogy as beloved classics.

Indiana Jones 5 Promotional Image; Source: The Walt Disney Company

Today, the franchise includes two further entries, but much has changed. Before the 2012 Disney-Lucasfilm acquisition, a 2008 reboot failed to depart. Additionally, Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, the latest release, greatly underperformed at the box office ($380 million gross on a budget of roughly $400 million) and left fans dissatisfied. Without the Spielberg-Lucas duo leading the project, the movie stands out as uninspired and unnecessary. Lead actor Harrison Ford appears tired and disinterested. New cast members (and therefore characters), such as Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller Bridge, failed to appease audiences. Overall, Disney committed the same mistake Lucasfilm did 15 years prior: reopening the franchise without any basis other than profit. 

In an industry that increasingly views movies as products, corporations are recycling material instead of searching for the next great sensation. Fortunately, the oversaturated and played-out stories that have dominated the industry for the past decade are being rejected and abandoned now. The culture of remakes and reboots, of endlessly mining the same properties for more cash, seems to have finally hit creative bedrock. In fact, when major Hollywood studios bring fresh stories to light, mainstream audiences appreciate the novelty. Obviously, an original story must intersect with compelling screenwriting and breathtaking cinematography to pack theaters. The 2023 summer window had just that.

Atomic Barbie

The 21st of July 2023, lightning struck twice. Two colossal projects finally hit theaters globally. The tale of Barbie and Oppenheimer is one of similarities within differences. While diametrically opposite at first glance, beneath the surface lie the commonalities that defined their successes. Both helmed by visionary creatives, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan, the two movies dominated the media cycle, critical reception and audiences. Where does Barbenheimer’s triumph originate? 

A feminist satirical comedy and an explosive historical biopic united to become the fourth-largest aggregate domestic box office weekend ever. How it happened: Universal and Warner Brothers offered talented creatives the opportunity and backing to craft art. Furthermore, the two corporations gave creative control to the individuals involved. Instead of interfering to obtain safe and canonical output, executives accepted risk and uncertainty. Given such resources, Greta Gerwig and Christopher Nolan produced masterful pictures unafraid to express engaging stories. Every individual involved, ranging from editors and producers to cinematographers and musicians, longed for a distinct art piece. Predictably, the care and passion that permeated both projects resonated with audiences. As Oppenheimer and Barbie gear up for the awards season red carpet, Hollywood must realize how special this duo really is.

Barbenheimer Poster; Source: Sean Longmore

Two lessons for Hollywood emerge from the spoils of Barbenheimer. Firstly, Barbie definitively proved that women will show up in massive numbers to movies actually marketed towards them. Instead of Hollywood’s standard approach of awkwardly retooling traditionally male franchises in a lazy attempt to appeal to both genders, stories made by women for women will pack theaters comfortably. The film industry has ignored such an extremely large and impactful demographic (women drive 70-80% of all consumer purchases in the United States) for too long. Secondly, the complexity of audiences’ taste and trends cannot be understood. Barbenheimer dominated popular culture for months before and after its release. The raw power of organic social media word of mouth vastly outmatches even the most aggressive marketing campaign. The competition between Barbie and Oppenheimer, dressing up for either, the double feature cinema day, the memes that permeated Instagram and TikTok, such simple pleasures remind us why cinema belongs to the audience.

The Challenges Of Success

The ideal trajectory for most successful directors consists of an inexpensive start, a bold mid-budget stretch, and, lastly, the prestige of high-priced production. The limitations of small budgets stimulate talent’s ingenuity, whilst the freedom of big budgets offer an endless stream of possibilities (and dangers). Extremely popular director-writers such as Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan or Greta Gerwig, having proven their ability to combine box office success with critical acclaim, need not worry about funding. Major Hollywood studios, having realized the upshot potential for projects with colossal backing (see also: Avatar, Avengers, Top Gun: Maverick), are frothing at the mouth for spending opportunities. But money does not guarantee success. 

Director-writers Ari Aster and Robert Eggers constitute two of the leading voices in horror dramas. The two rising stars spawned strong, albeit small, fanbases with their debuts: Aster’s Hereditary and Eggers’ The Witch established the creatives as distinct directors with strong vision. Both movies are terrifying and well written, entwined with brilliant performances. Subsequently, Aster’s and Eggers’ sophomore projects, Midsommar and The Lighthouse respectively, solidified the pair’s permanence and recognition. Naturally, after low-budget box office successes, greater finances awaited the pair. 

Robert Eggers teamed up with Focus Features, a division of NBCUniversal, for his latest project. This consisted of Eggers’ first experience working with a major studio, now finally working with a large production budget (estimated $70 million). The Northman, an epic historical thriller, depicts a viking prince’s quest to avenge the murder of his father. Unfortunately, despite a star-studded cast (which includes Willem Dafoe, Anya-Taylor Joy, Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke) and a strong marketing campaign, the film proved too offbeat for mainstream audiences. Barely reaching its breakeven point of $70 million, the release did not conform to studio expectations. Considering the project faced the tough reality of 2022’s slow post-COVID-19 ticket sales recovery, NBCUniversal will hopefully undertake similar productions in the future. 

The Northman Poster; Source: Focus Features

Different was the fate of Ari Aster’s 2023 release, Beau Is Afraid. Working for the third time with A24, a rising independent production company, Aster received his biggest production budget to date. The surrealist tragicomedy horror film portrays Joaquin Phoenix, starring as the title character, on a weird journey to find his mother. Despite Aster’s prestigious reputation after Hereditary and Midsommar, the film failed to find its audience, grossing only $11 million on a $35 million budget. Poor marketing, an excessively freakish plot or the usual box office difficulties of the horror genre all contributed to the film’s hapless release. May Ari Aster bounce back with another gem.

Beau Is Afraid; Source: A24

Although both directors failed to meet box office expectations when given their first large budget, Hollywood must remain trustful of ambitious directors with unusual styles. The films were financially unsuccessful, but the preceding decisions were sound. In a buyers market such as the film industry, not all releases can succeed at the box office. Big and small productions alike are vulnerable to Hollywood’s greatest mystery: audiences’ taste. The financial ruin of a box office flop has frightened major studios into risk avoidance. Safe and formulaic completely oppose the artmaking core of cinema. Sterilizing the artform to obtain profit will only alienate audiences further. 

The End

When movies simply stand as products, major Hollywood studios will tend to streamline and standardize the film-making process. Disney has become a factory when it should be operating as an art gallery. Unfortunately, Hollywood remains a business, bound by the financial requirements of the industry. Profit is and always will be the end goal for major studios. Such an expensive artform must face the tough reality of ticket sales and streaming views. But it is the only way: how else can we experience the colossal productions of Dune: Part Two or Avatar: The Way Of Water? Nevertheless, quality and profit can marry when funds operate under passionate and dedicated leadership. Corporate cinema need not perform poorly, uninspired recycling is responsible for recent box office flops. Human ingenuity and creativity can conquer everything, may Hollywood offer them their deserved space.


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