In Variety, a Disney studio exec makes brutally clear what has become increasingly obvious over the last few years. Big movie audiences no longer care much about character, dialogue, or even story — what they want is spectacle.
"People say 'It's all about the story,'" [Andy] Hendrickson said. "When you're making tentpole films, bullshit." Hendrickson showed a chart of the top 12 all-time domestic grossers, and noted every one is a spectacle film. Of his own studio's "Alice in Wonderland," which is on the list, he said: "The story isn't very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn't hurt."
The obvious counter to this claim is that, okay, this might be true in big movies, backed by $100 million or more in advertising, but not so much in other productions, or plays, for instance.
But in fact the biggest hit to come out of London theater in the last year or so, the hit that has won a slew of awards on both sides of the Atlantic, the play that is being made into a movie for release this Christmas by Steven Spielberg is Warhorse…which is a great spectacle.
It's a freaking masterpiece of animal representation, in fact, brilliantly and touchingly accomplished. Nonetheless the show has remarkably little to offer in the way of character or dialogue, and only enough story to make us care about the fate of the animals. In truth, the cute little puppet duck in the play is far more memorable than anything that any human says in the two or so hours on stage.
A spectacle, in other words. Here's a scene that pits the stage horse vs. a tank.
Spectacle can be great. But as Michael Addison, the newly-named director of Theater 150, pointed out to me in an interview, spectacle is the last and least of the theatrical virtues mentioned by Aristotle.
Today it's all about what we can see. What we can hear, or think, or feel, is secondary.
Mulling the last of the Harry Potter movies, a spectacle, but with emotion too, New Yorker critic David Denby admired the film, but nonetheless wondered if the young fans of the series…
…will be able, in ten years, to sit still for a movie without special effects and magic, a movie in which a man and a woman face each other across a table and simply talk. Or will any film without horcruxes and hippogriffs seem lifeless and dull?
I wonder too.