Over the last month, I’ve watched as people who’ve never considered themselves cinephiles bandy about phrases like “Panavision,” “70 mm” and “roadshow” — old, dusty terms from a bygone era in Hollywood history. Quentin Tarantino must be pleased: With The Hateful Eight, he wanted to evoke the grand, cinematic spectaculars of yore — films whose reputations of spectacle were so widespread, so formidable, that they lured even the laziest members of the moviegoing public into the theaters.
It’s normal, of course, for studios to commit to publicity campaigns for their films. What’s striking about Hateful Eight — and its award season sibling, The Revenant — is how their production and marketing strategies echo those of the studios in the 1950s and ’60s, when the industry floundered to anchor itself amid the incursion of television and the postwar shifts in population and viewing habits. Back then, location shooting, glorious widescreen cinematography, reliance on the few remaining established stars, staggered release schedules (roadshowing), and advertising ballyhoo and gimmickry (Smell-O-Vision, 3D) combined to staunch the sharp decline in ticket sales and studio profits.
Even if Hateful Eight and Revenant reflect hints of the same desperation that plagued the box office 50 years ago, they’re anything but old-fashioned. Both feel vital, novel, and, as intentioned, special, even as they resort to old tactics in attempt to solve an equally old (or at least enduring) problem: How can you draw people to the movie theater when they have so much to watch at home? And how can you do it without the cheat of the name of a superhero, beloved book series, childhood game, or ‘70s film in the title?
Early box office returns suggest that these tactics have been effective: The Hateful Eight is on track for $37 million in its second week of expansion; The Revenant, which expands from four to 3,375 screens this weekend, is predicted to take in a $35 million weekend gross. Hold those figures against the cost of roadshowing in 70 mm (for Hateful) or one of the most difficult, and expensive, shoots in years ($135 million for The Revenant) and the question remains: Are these films indicative of the future of film, and cinemagoing in general — or the dwindling, beautiful, yet desperate gasps of a way of life, and art, in inexorable decline?
To understand just what drove Hollywood to the modes of spectacle in the ‘50s and ‘60s, you have to understand just how much its business was threatened. In 1946, moviegoing was at an all-time high of 90 million people a week; by the early ‘50s, that number had been cut in half. Part of it was lure of television, which, by 1953, had begun what would become a near total penetration into the homes of the American public.
With the mass migration to the suburbs in the ‘50s, moviegoers were led away from theaters in city centers to smaller screens in their living rooms. Television's image quality was shitty, but it was also well, right there. Which, as anyone who’s watched a bad rom-com on their phone will tell you, will easily trump things like “quality” or “beauty” when it comes to an evening’s entertainment.
The cinema, in other words, had to compete with our massive natural inclination towards laziness, and lost, big time. There was also the problem of content: As the studios got more and more freaked out by plummeting attendance figures, they decided to double-down on proven and, increasingly, out-of-touch formulas. When they did happen upon something that resonated, often unpredictably — like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause — they ran the concept into the ground, copycatting it until it wasn’t cool. Studios also relied heavily on proven stars, most of whose popularity dated to before the end of World War II: people like Cary Grant and Clark Gable, both of whom were incredibly handsome but could only keep playing silver foxes for so long.
Attempts to cultivate new stars were confounded by the actors’ own volatility (see: Brando), deaths (see: Dean, Marilyn Monroe), or overblown egos (see: Elizabeth Taylor). Big movies based on well-known stories (like, say, the Bible) were popular, but they also cost a ton to make and could be huge bombs, while films that sounded horrible on paper (see: The Sound of Music) went crazy at the box office, to everyone’s general bafflement. Bottom line: No one could predict what would hit and what wouldn’t, and the studios lost a lot of money betting on the tastes of fickle audiences.
Something like 3D would inflate attendance for a bit, only to recede; same for gimmicks like Smell-O-Vision, which piped in atmospheric smells to match the narrative onscreen, or Elvis movies, or the motorcycle film. Fads — in culture, in moviegoing — weren't unique to this era, but their rise and fall were especially acute during it, whether due to the development of the youth market or the rapid expansion of consumer culture, or both, or more.
If you’ve paid even the slightest amount of attention to the last two years in Hollywood, this should sound familiar. Just when the studios think they’ve figured something out — the value of superheroes, say, or Johnny Depp— the moviegoing public provides irrefutable, embarrassing evidence to the contrary. While the actual number of tickets sold this year is up 7.4%, the year before was filled with disappointments and industry-wide confusion: “2014 is the fourth year in a row that box-office and film quality data suggests that downward shift in theatrical demand curve has taken place,” industry analyst Doug Creutz asserted in the early months of 2015. “Additionally, we are increasingly concerned that the convergence to nearly identical film franchise strategies at the major studios risks damaging the ecology of the business and accelerating already existing negative secular trends.”
The studios figured out something that worked — in this case, superheroes and other forms of “known” brands, or “intellectual property” — and focused on them so myopically that they largely lost sight of the diversity of experiences that actually bring people to the theaters. Explosions, sure, but also compelling stories, with and without established stars. This knowledge didn’t magically manifest in 2015, but the trends of the last five years, which culminated in damning analyses like Creutz’s, had been brewing since the collapse of the DVD market in 2007, if not before.
Enter: 2015. It’s difficult to ascribe any sort of direct cause-and-effect from one year’s box office to the next year’s slate, as films are green-lit and developed years ahead of time. But if various corners of the industry — including filmmakers, rogue producers, and stars — had been sensing the trend for some time, it makes sense that projects countering that tired way of doing business would come to fruition. Some, like Straight Outta Compton ($161 million domestic gross) proved the enduring power of the mid-range biopic; others, like Spy ($235 million worldwide gross) and Kingsman ($414 million worldwide), showed how untraditional stars like Melissa McCarthy and Colin Firth, along with snappy genre scripts, can yield enormous, if largely unheralded, profits. And then there’s something like The Martian, which combines a tested star, a trusted director, and space, essentially a piece of intellectual property unto itself, without the feeling of derivativeness that haunt so many franchises. Add in STX, the new studio tasked with making modest hits out of mid-budget pictures filled with stars (some old, some teen) who reliably attract a global audience, and it feels like a veritable backlash.
Which isn’t to say that films like Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Jurassic World didn’t dominate 2015 or pull the box office figures past the years before. More that there’s a strong undercurrent of dissatisfaction — mixed, of course, with fear: that nothing, not even diminishing returns, can stop, or even reroute, the industry’s superhero-bound downward trajectory.
Which brings us to Hateful Eight and The Revenant. Both promise to dominate the awards discussion of the year that was — and, using those same tactics from the ‘50s and ‘60s, aim to substantiate the argument that narratives flagrantly outside the realm of established brands can still draw audiences.
Tarantino’s been resisting Hollywood’s trajectory since he first started making films in the early ‘90s. More than any other contemporary director, his films, and the rhetoric that surrounds them, yearn for a return not just to the aesthetics and narrative of yore, but the leeway given to director experimentation as the studios of the past searched for a hit. He doesn’t want to go back to classic Hollywood and the studio system that attended it: That’d be far too suffocating. Rather, Tarantino's obsessed with the period often referred to as the “silver age” of cinema — when the studios’ general confusion permitted directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Kubrick, and Polanski the freedom to play around with art cinema techniques and genre — and, in so doing, elevate themselves to the status of auteur. For Tarantino, those were the days.
It’s no surprise, then, that Tarantino feels despair at the current state of the industry. When he speaks about the value of film, as in light streaming through celluloid, he’s also speaking about the value of himself and his particular mode of filmmaking. “You can’t even have an intelligent argument about [film] being bested by the digital stuff,” he told Deadline. “There’s no intelligent argument to be had that puts digital, even the greatest Imax situation, in front of that.”
Even if Alejandro G. Iñárritu, director of The Revenant, commits the cardinal sin of shooting on digital, he’s equally bullish when it comes to the value of his approach to filmmaking: “Too many [films] today are like products of fast-food chains,” he told the New York Times, “ordered up by corporations that prize predictability and sameness over all else. What about going to a restaurant to be surprised? That’s the risk that everybody avoids! In the context of cinema now, [The Revenant] is a bet.”
The Hateful Eight and The Revenant might be “bets,” but their incorporation of ‘50s and ‘60s marketing, and its brilliant exploitation of you-must-see-in-theater sentiment, make them vanguards as well. For The Hateful Eight, Tarantino knew he wanted to shoot in some sort of widescreen format. After hanging out at Panavision — the company that eventually emerged in triumph from the widescreen format wars of the time — he and cinematographer Bill Richardson decided on shooting in Ultra Panavision with anamorphic lenses: 65 mm that would then be projected at 70 mm.
The narrative of that decision, and the subsequent struggle to implement it, should be dry, wonky, and relegated to American Cinematographer. But Tarantino transformed it into a plot worthy of his own movies, complete with a screening of Ben-Hur, a handful of dusty, ill-used lenses in a back room, and a quest to hunt down every 70 mm projector in circulation, all with the purpose of restoring majesty to the cinema — which he, Weinstein, Panavision, and others then recounted to every high-profile entertainment outlet.
That narrative is also reproduced in the Hateful Eight featurette, viewed more than 400,000 times, in which star Samuel L. Jackson functions as a mix of carnival barker and preschool teacher for the underlying conceit of the Hateful Eight roll-out:
“Back in the day, a night at the movies was a big event. They even got dressed up! They called this a ROADSHOW. It was a limited engagement show with reserved seating, an intermission, an overture, and they also gave you a program. A few classics released this way were Gone With the Wind, El Cid, and Ben-Hur, each presented in grrrrrrand fashion. We are doing that on Christmas Day. In GLORIOUS 70 mm. That’s pretty cool, huh?”
Jackson further explains that “The movie is shot in 65 mm then projected in 70, which is an image twice the size of what you’re used to, which will make your enhanced viewing even doper”; co-star Tim Roth emphasizes that “for the actors, it’s like we’re in a movie, we’re not in a hard drive”; Walton Goggins says, “I think [Tarantino] is reminding people that cinema is a place to be revered.” It’s 70 mm and roadshow propaganda in its purest form. The same can be said for the promotional images for the film, which visually recall the ‘50s-era invitations for audiences to leave their home and revel in the transportive expansiveness of the widescreen.
With Eight, Tarantino’s playing towards cinephile and fanboy sensibilities, which he’s done since Reservoir Dogs. This time though, he’s using his decades-in-the-making reputation with mainstream audiences to teach average moviegoers why they should find 70 mm spectacular. Tarantino movies are, at some small level, a cultural event, but with Eight and the roadshow pomp and circumstance, he’s attempting to turn the film into a spectacle that doesn’t just amaze, but bestows a level of cultural sophistication on its audience.
In the past, Weinstein has used Tarantino’s cinephilia, auteurism, and general bombast to keep his films part of the awards and media conversation — which, in turn, translated into box office. The Hateful Eight lacks the controversy of past films, in part because people are fatigued with arguing whether or not he can use the n-word, or fetishize violence, or revise history, as he’ll continue to do all three. But the conversation continues: It’s just tethered more powerfully to the aesthetics, the must-see–ness, in a way that must please Tarantino and Weinstein, especially after reports of botched critics screenings brought the wisdom of the entire endeavor into question. With those concerns a distant memory, Hateful Eight's expansion numbers provide a solid case for green-lighting similar films in the future.
The Revenant’s marketing isn’t as direct a reproduction of ‘50s and ‘60s tactics as Tarantino’s. But its understanding of spectacle, and how to sell it, borrows just as heavily from the industrial wisdom of that time. First, there’s the massive, no compromises, on-location production. Back in the ’50s, one thing cinema could increasingly do — and television, with its almost entirely set-bound programming, could not — was offer a window to the world: Egypt, Italy, Asia, Hawaii. Today, CGI has made it so we have no shortage of exotic locales on display. Except no one’s actually there. The Revenant thus promises actual on-location shooting in the wilds of Canada and Argentina, exclusively in natural light, which, in the deep of winter, could mean a mere 90 minutes of shooting a day. The film's shoot was likened to a “living hell,” and that’s what makes it feel real — and, as retold on repeat in media accounts, also what makes it good.
As Iñárritu told The Hollywood Reporter, “If we ended up [using] green screen with coffee and everybody having a good time, everybody will be happy, but most likely the film would be a piece of shit.” They didn’t shoot on green screen, and no one was happy; ergo, the movie is the opposite of a piece of shit, especially since it was the work of Emmanuel Lubezki, an auteur in his own right, responsible for some of the most indelible moments of cinema from the past decade. He might not be shooting with Ultra Panavision, but he does have his trademark extra-long tracking shot, which, with its attendant 30 days of rehearsal, becomes its own sort of spectacle.
The Revenant’s contentious shoot also aligns Iñárritu with auteurs’ troubled projects of the past — Herzog and Fitzcarraldo, Coppola and Apocalypse Now, Cameron and Titanic — whose shoots endured similarly “bad” press that, in truth, only imbued the final product with an aura of power. And while the settings of The Revenant are indeed gorgeous, their allure stems from the narrative of their bleakness and authenticity as much as from the images themselves.
Then there’s Leonardo DiCaprio: one of the few stars who can still be considered a spectacle, with attendant draw, unto himself. Annual declarations of the unpredictability of star value simply do not apply to him, in part because he’s chosen his projects with incredible care, but also because of the lingering and all-powerful global recognition from Titanic. His films do well domestically, but they do franchise-like numbers internationally — even though he’s one of few major actors who’s completely avoided anything resembling a sequel or superhero movie.
Since Titanic, DiCaprio’s sheer presence, magnified onscreen, feels as special and otherworldly as any other cinematic spectacle. His face, his eyes, his hair, all marvels: What will it do, how it will seduce, even when that face is covered in beard, or, as it is in The Revenant, broken, in anguish, covered in blood? How is he still beautiful? Why is it impossible to take your eyes off him? The answer may be “superlative acting,” but it’s also the simple pleasure of watching a star we’ve known for years doing something big and beautiful onscreen. That’s why audiences flocked to see similarly aged and reliable stars in the ‘50s and ‘60s: Cary Grant might’ve been old news, but watching him made you feel like you were at the movies.
There’s rampant speculation that DiCaprio took the role so that he could, at long last, win an Oscar: After being nominated five times, he knew he’d need a juicy, transformative performance to bring it home. That’s a cynical way of looking at it, but as of this writing, the odds are six to one in his favor of winning a Golden Globe. The draw of the film isn’t just “come watch Leo” but “come watch the spectacle of Leo acting” — of eating an actual raw buffalo liver onscreen, even though he’s vegetarian; of wading into freezing-cold Canadian waters to catch a fish with his bare hands.
Whether it’s Iñárritu's uncompromising filming schedule, Lubezki’s cinematography, or DiCaprio’s acting, press accentuating the process of each prompts the viewer to conceive of what they’re witnessing as art — and, by extension, worthy of both their attention and money.
Finally, there’s the ballyhoo — a word borrowed from the carnies and salespeople still used by the trades to describe attempts to hype a movie ahead of its release. Fox has rolled out a traditional global advertising campaign (think trailers and posters and billboards), but its approach also borrows heavily from tactics used to promote exploitation horror films in the ‘50s, later adapted for the big-budget spectacles (The Exorcist, Jaws) of the ‘70s. The setting is beautiful, sure, but its real draw is thinly veiled sadism: the incredible fear and pain on display, and the opportunity for you to watch a major Hollywood star experience it.
A month before the film’s release, the Drudge Report published a report that DiCaprio is raped by a bear during the course of the film. “The explicit moment from Oscar winning director Alejandro Iñárritu has caused maximum controversy in early screenings,” Drudge reported. “Some of the audience escaped to exits when the Wolf of Wall Street met the Grizzly of Yellowstone.” Within hours, posts reproducing the rumor — and discrediting it — exploded across the internet: “Leonardo DiCaprio May or May not Get Raped By a Bear Twice in ‘The Revenant"; "Leonardo DiCaprio Responds to Rumor That He Is Raped By Bear in The Revenant: 'It's Absurd.'"
Even if the claim itself was absurd — and physically impossible, as the bear was female — its virality, even in denial form, was worth more than any number of billboard buys. In many respects, the rumor was the first time the mainstream audience was introduced to the film. In the weeks leading up to the film, even if you didn’t recognize The Revenant by its opaque title, chances are you were acquainted with and intrigued by a film that almost killed its crew and features a scene in which one could feasibly believe that a man was raped by a bear.
The scene gave Fox on obvious peg on which to hang its marketing. Industry analyst David Poland argues that the film's strong expansion numbers are all about Fox's "sell" of it. "Like the campaign for The Big Short, the studio decided to market to the sweet spot and not the complexity of the film," he writes. "The bear attack has been used in ads the way a studio uses the joke in a film that consistently got the biggest laugh in preview screenings. And 4–5 million people will have responded by Sunday night by buying movie tickets."
The original Drudge report also suggests that the scene was so disturbing as to cause audience members to flee — the exact sort of ballyhoo (some propagated by studios, some not) that drew audiences to films like The Last House on the Left, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and The Exorcist that traded on immense allure of the abject: It’s so terrifying you’ll want to leave, so obviously you can’t resist submitting yourself to it.
The bear rape rumor is just one of several narratives intended to emphasize just how terrifying the film truly is. DiCaprio has spoken extensively about the immersive component of the film, but Fox is also substantiating it with cold hard data. Through a collaboration with Lightwave, the studio is measuring audience members' biometric responses during the film. Participants are strapped into devices that function like Fitbit-on-steroids, tracking heart rate, skin temperature, movement, and a host of other responses that, taken together, indicate when an audience member experiences moments of “fight or flight.”
Over the course of the film, I experienced 19 of those freak-out fight-or-flight moments; the national average is 14. Concerns about the future studio use of this data aside, it’s an amazing piece of marketing: Here’s scientific data that proves just how terrifying the movie is. But in order to truly experience that fear — to be transfixed, motionless, for 70 minutes, as I was — you have to see it in a theater, absent distractions.
By the end of the ‘60s, the appeal of roadshows and widescreen had exhausted itself, and the temporary saviors of the industry were supplanted by the blockbuster and, eventually, the conglomerate, brand-dependent landscape of today. Within that tired paradigm, The Revenant and The Hateful Eight feel like the salvation of something, even if it’s unclear what. But they might also be overhyped, impossible-to-reproduce aberrations before the grip of the franchise tightens even further.
“The cinema” — as an art, as an experience — has supposedly been on a death march for years. And yet it should be clear by now that the desire to see spectacle in a setting that befits and amplifies it remains. We still go to concerts, even with Spotify; we seek the natural world for ourselves, even with Instagram. The combination and spectacle can yield transcendent moments in cinema, but they’re impossible to reverse engineer. Which is why you need people who are committed to the quixotic quest of discovering them anew, even snobby, periodically intolerable people like Tarantino, to make the case for new films when a statistical model cannot.
No two movies can prove the death or life of an entire industry. But they can suggest just how cyclical Hollywood remains — and function as both warning and beacon, with about as much subtlety as a bear attack, of what might be to come.