The 'Holiday' Movie Takeaway: Audiences Are Shelling Out for Unique Narrative Over Brand Recognition
January 6, 2020
The holiday rush to post-New Year’s period at the box office saw some longstanding notions about the power of macro narratives hold firm, but perhaps more importantly, showed how micro narratives can take hold of the public imaginations—and that brand recognition does not a story make.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has predictably dominated the box office since its release on December 20th. The ninth film in the Skywalker Saga took in approximately $34 million over its third weekend in theaters, bringing its domestic total to $450 million thus far.
The numbers are healthy, but most of the discussion concerning TROS has centered around its narrative choices, and whether or not they were the right ones. This highlights the fact that the current Star Wars trilogy was the first one to be released in the age of social media, and how much of a role fan scrutiny plays in modern blockbusters. On more than several occasions, the more controversial aspects of the divisive previous installment, The Last Jedi, were actively reversed by the new film.
It's one thing to respond to your audience's demands, it's another thing to let the loudest online voices dictate the direction of your narrative. In my opinion, co-writer and director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio struck an admirable balance of wrapping up an epic narrative while somewhat catering to those who felt The Last Jedi strayed too far from what a Star Wars movie should be.
It does, however, also highlight how bold writer-director Rian Johnson was in trying to shake things up with The Last Jedi. Some other weekend box office results point to his significance as a major modern narrative voice.
Johnson's Knives Out, a loving homage to—and subversion of—the 1970s-style ensemble whodunnit, took in around $9 million over the weekend. A result that strongly indicates the surprise hit will overtake the domestic total of Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in...Hollywood, which ended its run with a total of $141 million.
It's a hugely encouraging sign that an original narrative can make such an impact in an era defined by franchises based on intellectual properties.
A similar conclusion can be drawn from the remarkable success of the Adam Sandler indie drama Uncut Gems, which has defied all expectations by bringing its total to approximately $37 million over the weekend.
With much awards season discussion around Sandler's lead performance as a diamond-dealing gambling addict, word-of-mouth from the film's first two weeks in limited release led to it clicking with a wide audience once it hit 2,000+ theaters during the film’s third week.
Seeing an original narrative garner such an enthusiastic reception bodes very well for the health of films not based on an existing property. Sometimes, it feels like Hollywood is only interested in telling stories that audiences are already familiar with, so it's always refreshing when a new story breaks through.
The result correlates with any lessons learnt from the massive failure of the Cats film, which was released as Star Wars counter-programming, only to instantly become one of the notorious flops of all-time.
Most people have heard of the Cats theatrical production, so it makes sense that Hollywood would attempt an adaptation of it at some point. But the film's failure points to how name-recognition isn't always enough—you need a story, too. And the Cats musical is kinda famous for not really having one.
That’s not the only reason cinemagoers rejected the film; the terrible CGI played a role too. Yet, the film is another example of the importance of presenting a compelling narrative when courting a wide audience.
Written by: Dominic CorryDominic Corry is a Los Angeles-based film critic, writer, journalist and broadcaster. Raised in New Zealand, he is also the West Coast editor of Letterboxd, the social network for movie lovers. For more of his film writing, see his website www.TheGoodInMovies.com