You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Niche

Hold on a second while I get on this here soap box…

In The Ringer’s recent episode of The Rewatchables — a podcast in which the chatters, yes, rewatch their favorite movies and dissect them in every way imaginable — editor-in-chief Sean Fennessey — who has a dynamic podcast of his own, The Big Picture, a great name preparing you for the great interviews he conducts, primarily with screenwriters and directors — cites a historical theory that Steven Spielberg’s Jaws ended mainstream American cinema’s flirtation with New Wave artistry.

It of course continued in indie pockets, but Jaws revealed to Hollywood how much money their output could make, spawning the advent of studio conglomerates who today act more like corporations mass-producing products than facilitating great art.

As I was listening, I realized that this may have been the source of my lifelong resentment of Steven Spielberg, “THE GREATEST DIRECTOR EVER!!!” Not because he’s the poster child for such mindlessness. Far from it. He’s in fact the gold standard that other directors with $tar$ in their eyes strive — and usually fail — to imitate. Some artists can stay true to the integrity of their artistic instincts while also appeasing the masses. Sometimes, these lucky few stumble into moments of genius that are artistically-landmark and financially-lucrative by equal measures, ala Hamilton and Jaws.

But once businessmen smell green in the water, they strive — and usually fail — to imitate such novelty, to find the replicable formula that will allow them to churn out art like an assembly line, printing money in the process.  But once they realize they can’t create Spielbergs with a snap of their grubby fingers, these excessive powers-that-be start gearing their work to appeal not to their own artistic instincts, but to the solvable — yet always fleeting — whims of the populace. Just ask Marvel. Or Disney.

Oh wait! Disney owns Marvel! What a coincidence!

Whereas the trailblazers that launch trends probably took risks in their initial ignitions, studios minimize creative risk, hoping to maximize reliable profits. And herein lies my problem with most mainstream fare. Art should be about an expression of the self, a missive from the creators to their audiences. The more a piece of art bears the individuality of its authors, the more niche it will be. In rare occasions, an artist’s natural sensibilities will align with the majority, as explained above. But the minute those sensibilities are artificially altered in the name of pandering conformity, what makes the art special tends to die.    

Rocky arrived the year after Jaws, and Star Wars took over box office galaxies far, far away — and near, and here, and there, and everywhere — the following year. So even without Jaws, Hollywood probably would’ve taken a turn for the worse shortly thereafter anyways.

Regardless, the next time anyone asks me why I’m disparaging the latest superhero spectacle, I’ll cite this article as one — but only one — of the many reasons this overflowing genre will almost surely never elicit respect from cinema historians in the decades to come.


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