It’s finally time! Today’s the day!
More than a dozen weeks after closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cinemark theaters are going to start opening back up in the DFW Metroplex. COVID-19 is still around, of course, it’s actually worse than ever in DFW specifically, but who cares, right?
With the decision to open up well before new content starts coming available, Cinemark faces a complex problem – how do theaters reestablish themselves as vital parts of the cinematic experience just months after the world sprinted past them?
Theaters have technically been legal to open in Texas since early May, but decisions about theatrical distribution are made on an international scale. Studios aren’t going to roll out their $200 million blockbusters for the handful of Texans willing to risk a trip to the theater just because our evil governor lied and said it was safe. Studios need at least most of Chinese and American theater infrastructure to be open to justify releasing major blockbusters, and without new content to show, theaters have had no economic incentive to reopen regardless of legality.
Most major releases scheduled for the spring have pushed their releases back, but several smaller ones decided to completely cut theaters out of the process and shifted to an online VOD release, most famously Trolls World Tour. Christopher Nolan’s Tenet held staunchly at its July 17 release date and was seen by many in the industry as the bell that would call moviegoers back to the theater, but even that has recently pushed back to July 31.
For Cinemark, that answer is the Cinemark Comeback Classics, a collection of classic movies the chain will screen for $5 a showing. This solution only presents a slightly different problem, one that’s even more fascinating to me – which movies?
This is a momentous glimpse into the present understanding of cinematic history, a singular and definitive collection of the most popular movies through the decades, not by any single metric of critical acclaim or financial success, but by their nebulous place in our present culture. This isn’t just your college buddy riffing off a list of favorites no one asked for or Film Twitter passing the time with some imbecilic bracket, this is big! Cinemark’s top men, the people who make six figures to predict audience behavior, have been tasked with bringing together a list of movies they expect people to risk their lives for! It’s the highest stakes Blu Ray collection, put together by the most qualified people, in American history!
With the fate of the cinematic experience as we know it on the line, what does Cinemark have on its shelf?
The Cinemark Comeback Classics
And they are:
50 First Dates
Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
Back to the Future
Blade Runner (The Final Cut)
The Dark Knight
The Dark Knight Rises
Ghostbusters (Ivan Reitman, 1984)
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
The Jungle Book (Jon Favreau, 2016)
The LEGO Movie
Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Mad Max: Fury Road
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Secret Life of Pets
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
The Thing (John Carpenter, 1982)
The Wizard of Oz, and
Listing them out like this, it’s easy to see what Cinemark was thinking here – this is a brilliantly diverse list of movies.
My first point of focus, which is also the one I have the least understanding of, is the number of titles – 37. Obviously, these aren’t all going to run at once or equally – there’s only around 15 screens total in the average Cinemark, they’re also working around movies that were in theaters just before the closure and clearly going to do some sort of series special with Rocky. There’s only a handful that are running in my area, and they seem to only have two showtimes each, indicating that they’re alternating screenings in the same arena. It looks like they’re being screened in three batches, which will each run for about two weeks – 37, then, would be just about the correct number for three shifts of 12 movies.
Even if they were all to run together, there’d be very little overlap. This list of films represents an idyllic spread of appeals by just about any metric.
Of these 37 movies, seven are rated R, 12 are rated PG-13 and 18 are PG. Of those 18, four – Jaws, Rocky, Rocky II and Empire Strikes Back – predate the PG-13 rating being established in 1981, which it was specifically for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and may well have been rated PG-13 in hindsight. There are no G rated movies, but plenty of family-oriented movies for people willing to risk exposing their children to disease as well. Eight of these titles are specifically listed as “family” and five are animated, six if you include The Jungle Book, which is part of Disney’s recent kick of calling their cartoons “live action” because no one will stop them.
The movies are almost logarithmically spread by age. Seven of them released within the past five years, an additional five within the past 10 years and an additional six within the past 20 years. That’s almost a 50/50 split between movies from before and after the turn of the century. There’s six movies from the ‘90s, nine movies from the ‘80s and four movies from the ‘70s, then you have to go all the way back to 1939 to find the elder of the group, The Wizard of Oz. The most represented individual years are 2016, 1985 and 1982 with three each, but those ‘80s years are each bolstered by a Rocky entry.
Aside from the Rocky series and two of the three Dark Knight movies, there aren’t any movies from the same series here – there isn’t even an MCU movie to spare, with Black Panther Marvel’s only representation. Highlighting this are films like Sorcerer’s Stone, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the King, which are usually thought of as parts of a whole.
There’s not a ton of personnel overlap, either. In terms of stars – of course there are several actors featured in more than one of these films and of course Sylvester Stallone pops up quite a bit with the entire Rocky series in here, but in terms of actors who are the bona fide leads of their films and not including long strings of sequels, Harrison Ford takes the cake with three appearances, leading Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Blade Runner. No one else comes close. Christian Bale plays Batman twice and Tom Hardy could make an argument for two leading roles in Fury Road and The Dark Knight Rises, but that obviously doesn’t compare to Ford’s presence. Bill Murray also crops up a lot.
There’s not a single Jack Nicholson, Will Smith or Nicholas Cage performance in this grouping. Samuel L. Jackson’s only performance is his bit part in Jurassic Park. Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael J. Fox and Kurt Russell get around the same amount of lines as Michael Jordan, Adam Sandler and Louis C.K.
There’s a significant level of diversity here, with Black Panther and Get Out bringing explicit black American angst to the group and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse bringing a broader sense of inclusion. Those three, the Michael Jordan-starring Space Jam and The Matrix, starring Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne, bring a total of five movies lead by people of color – five out of 37 may not seem like much, but in context of the history of film, is probably higher than chance.
Additionally, we have two movies directed by women, Wonder Woman and The Matrix – although Matrix writer/director duo Lana and Lilly Wachowski didn’t come out as transgender until more than a decade later, meaning “woman director” wasn’t part of that movie’s identity until several years in hindsight. Again, two out of 37 is a very small percentage, but probably much higher than chance.
Five directors appear multiple times on this list, but John G. Alvidsen and Sylvester Stallone only do so because of the stack of Rocky movies, Christopher Nolan appears thrice because they’re probably trying to build hype for Tenet, and Chris Renaud doesn’t really count – he’s one half of the directing team for two animated features in Despicable Me and The Secret Life of Pets.
The only director who genuinely has multiple different appearances for different movies is Steven Spielberg, which should come as little surprise. Spielberg is the iconic ’80s director, helming three of history’s most iconic summer blockbusters in Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Jurassic Park. Additionally, his production company, Amblin Entertainment, was involved with Back to the Future and The Goonies.
Quantifying the success
While these films span a wide range of genres, personnel, eras, runtimes and ratings, they’re all extremely successful, but not as uniformly as one might imagine.
The most uniform success is financial. Only nine of these movies made less than $100 million in their initial run, only five when adjusted for inflation. Eighteen of these movies, more than half, made more than $200 million in their initial runs. Eleven made more than $500 million adjusted, and Jaws’ numbers in context are absolutely insane – adjusted for inflation, its domestic gross alone would equate to $1.2 billion in 2020 dollars, such as they are.
When looked at year-to-year, 10 of these were the top grosser of their release year and an additional 15 were in the top 10. That said, almost as many, eight, finished outside the top 20 of their years, and only two of those are Rocky movies. Blade Runner and The Thing were famously underappreciated in their time, finishing at no. 29 and 43 in the 1982 chart, and Scream is all the way down at no. 74 in 1996. Independence Day, the 1996 champion by a mile and a summer classic, is one of the larger omissions from this list.
The average Rotten Tomatoes score is just a hair under 80%, but 17 of the 37 movies, more than half, are above 90%. Eight more, for a total of 25, are above the mathematical average of 80%, and six more are getting degrees with more than 70%. The average is skewed by significant outliers, particularly the Rocky series – with that entire series removed, the average score of the remaining 31 films comes to just a hair under 86.5%, still dragged down by major outliers in 50 First Dates at 45% and Space Jam, which is stunningly the worst-rated movie on this list not staring Sly Stallone at just a 43% critic rating. With those outliers removed, the average jumps to 89.41%.
There aren’t a ton of big critic/audience splits on the Tomatometer, as 27 of these movies have two scores that are within 10% of each other. Critics were significantly more fond of Mean Girls, Black Panther and Rocky, while audiences loved Space Jam, 50 First Dates and especially Rocky IV, the one where he punches out the Soviet Union, which has an alarming split of almost 40%.
In terms of prestige, this grouping brings 102 Oscar nominations and 53 wins – 21 of these movies carry that weight, 16 of them weren’t nominated at all. Return of the King, with is historic 11 for 11 sweep in 2003, obviously leads the charge, followed by Mad Max: Fury Road with 10 nominations and 6 wins, Rocky with 10 nominations – including four actor nominations – and three wins, Raiders of the Lost Ark with nine nominations and five wins and The Dark Knight and Inception with eight nominations apiece. That 53 for 102 represents a good success rate – usually what you see at the Academy is some movies getting one or two awards and the Best Picture winner winning most of its categories, so it would be strange to see an individual movie bat .500 like that, but then again, we have several examples of movies that won right at 50% of the Oscars they were nominated for in this very list.
Interestingly, most of the nominations are in technical categories like sound and visual effects. The major categories lag. There are only seven Best Picture nominees and five Best Director nominees in this group, and only two winners – Rocky and Return of the King both times – for each. Jurassic Park might have joined them, but Spielberg won Best Picture and Director for his other 1993 film, Schindler’s List – that’s a hell of a double feature – which probably locked him out of getting nominations for both. The Wizard of Oz would also surely have won Best Picture had it not shared 1939 with Gone With the Wind, and this pair of movies also shared a director in Victor Fleming. Fleming left the set of an almost-complete Wizard of Oz to take over Gone With the Wind three weeks into production – they were both MGM films, it was the studio era, this sort of thing happened. He would win Best Director for Gone With the Wind.
Only three screenplays – Rocky, Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings, the only winner among them – were nominated, and only three movies – Fury Road, The Dark Knight and Inception, which won – were nominated for Best Cinematography. Four of these films – Rocky, Lord of the Rings, Fury Road and Jaws – were nominated for Best Film Editing, all of them winning. These movies have only six acting nominations between them, four of them in Rocky, with the only win being Heath Ledger’s overwhelming turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight.
By contrast, the group has 10 nominations for Visual Effects and 17 received some kind of nomination for sound design – the specific awards change too frequently over the years to be useful. This largely reflects the intention behind technical awards, which were incorporated to bring more Academy recognition to popular films, which tend to push technical boundaries much further than prestige movies.
Nine of these films are entered into the National Film Registry, certainly the most comprehensive honor for an American film, but also the most exclusive. Twelve of them are too young for such an honor, though at least Black Panther, Get Out and Fury Road and likely Inception, Wonder Woman and Into the Spider-Verse will be inducted in my lifetime. The Dark Knight, another lock, has been eligible for two years, but is younger than the youngest movie in the Registry, 2005’s Brokeback Mountain.
This is a lovely group of movies and there’s nothing that ought to be removed – maybe the Rocky sequels, but those probably aren’t full members anyway – but on closer inspection, there’s quite a bit that could be added.
There’s no Disney Pixar movie here, and among the animated films, Into the Spider-Verse is the only one that won Best Animated Feature, which is actually quite and easy award to win since there are only a handful of high-profile animated movies per year. There were definitely better options than The Secret Life of Pets.
There’s no big Avengers team-up movie here – in fact, Black Panther is the only delegate from the MCU. Of the superhero movies involved, it’s limited almost exclusively to ones that had high-profile Best Picture pushes. The Dark Knight being snubbed for the award was such an outrage in 2008 that the number of nominees changed, Wonder Woman received a significant “for your consideration” campaign and Disney actually tried to install a back door into the Academy to give Black Panther an Oscar – it eventually got a Best Picture nomination anyway. I remember Into the Spider-Verse getting a push for a Best Picture nomination as well, but I could be making that up.
The Empire Strikes Back is the only Star Wars film – it and Black Panther are notably the only entries that are available on Disney+, which Cinemark likely strove to avoid overlapping with. Empire is generally considered more iconic that the original Star Wars today, but I disagree with that consensus, and I think the original would be a much stronger choice in this context in particular.
Cinemark obviously didn’t just group together the highest grossing movies ever. Eleven movies in this group of 37 classics are among the top 100 all time at the domestic box office, with Black Panther highest at no. 4, but when you look at the other movies high on that all time chart, it’s easy to see why they were left off.
The top domestic earner of all time is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a movie that was designed exclusively around nostalgia for better films of prior decades. Since they’re reaching back in time anyway, incorporating those actual films is a much better choice – Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, no. 100 on the all-time chart, is much more appealing to pretty much everyone.
Several other top earners have similar reasons to not warrant inclusion – Jurassic World, at no. 7, was made for nostalgia for Jurassic Park, at no. 37. Cinemark is just screening the one that was good in the first place instead of the tribute. The highest spots on the all-time chart are littered with sequels and remakes like this that profited heavily from nostalgia and the booming movie market but are simply not good movies on their own merit and were never intended to be.
The all-time chart adjusted for inflation also doesn’t correlate to Cinemark’s chart at all, but that’s also just not a great list of movies. No. 1 is Gone With the Wind, which you wouldn’t want screen in 2020 for obvious reasons, and after that it’s a mess of three-hour epics and movies that have aged out of the zeitgeist. The highest entry on this list that’s included by Cinemark is Jaws, with its astonishing $1.2 billion adjusted domestic gross only taking it to no. 7, but it’s immediately followed at no. 8 by something from 1965 called Doctor Zhivago.
No. 3 on the all-time domestic chart, and no. 15 when adjusted for inflation, is Avatar, and again, it’s easy to see why they left it out – Avatar was a freak success based on a gimmick, nobody remembers it just 10 years later and nobody seemed to like the movie itself at the time. But on the other hand, that gimmick, its 3D effects, cannot be recreated by home media. That should be a major point of emphasis for Cinemark here, to offer grand theatrical experiences that home viewing simply couldn’t compare to, and they don’t really have any movies making that argument.
Avatar completely reshaped the theatrical experience by proving audiences were willing to drop $20 a ticket for a larger-scale viewing experience, and purely for the experience – again, the movie itself wasn’t nearly as popular, and standard format screenings weren’t selling nearly the same way. The premium large-format market that Avatar established has shifted away from 3D, but has only grown more integral to the movie industry and to theaters specifically.
Because of the lack of nostalgia for the movie and the way the market has developed – PLF arenas are in precious short supply for individual theaters, so they’re always running the latest releases and can’t be spared for retro movies – we are probably never going to see Avatar shown in its full 3D ever again, and that’s kind of a shame. This moment, which could quite possibly be the only time in history that PLF arenas aren’t locked down by new content, would have been the perfect opportunity.
Titanic is no. 6 all time and no. 5 adjusted, that probably ought to be here. There aren’t a lot of love stories in Cinemark’s choices, just 50 First Dates, so it has a lot of room to carve a niche for itself. When viewed by genre, most of Cinemark’s picks are standard action/adventure/comedy summer movies, and there’s a lot of variation within that, but there’s also a lot that’s missing.
The only film noir is Blade Runner, which is the iconic neo noir but not a true, pure film noir. There are no crime dramas – you could make an argument for The Dark Knight or Inception, but only kind of. Wonder Woman is the only war film, but again, that’s highly diluted as an example of the genre. It’d be great to bring in The Hurt Locker, which redefined war movies in 2009 and remains the only movie ever for which a woman, Kathryn Bigelow, has won Best Director – Saving Private Ryan would be great too, but you probably don’t want a fourth Spielberg.
There’s three Spielberg pictures, but that’s it for the real heavy-hitting directors. There’s nothing here from Quentin Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock or Stanley Kubrick, and I think that’s a real misstep. If you’re going to ask people to risk a plague to see a movie, my first thought would be to cater to the type of hardcore cinephile that would entertain that notion in the first place.
Pulp Fiction, built by and for the type of nostalgia that fuels this demographic, is maybe the perfect movie for this venture, and 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Shining and Psycho would all bring in iconic directors and address significant aesthetic and genre holes in the lineup. As there are no black and white films at all, and several movies considered the greatest ever made are missing, Citizen Kane, Casablanca and The Godfather would all have a ton of breathing room, with very little overlap with any of Cinemark’s picks, and noir classics like The Maltese Falcon or Sunset Boulevard, which is driven by the poisonous side of Hollywood nostalgia, would be great inclusions as well.
The biggest factor that leapt out to me as possibly being predictive about this group of movies is their streaming availability. Cinemark is explicitly competing against streaming services here, both as they’ve existed for the past decade and in their new-ish role as platforms for high-profile new releases that threaten to directly replace theaters. I thought they might be uniformly absent from streaming services, and anything I might want to see added to the list of classics would be available to stream, necessitating their exclusion to avoid direct competition, but what I found was a lot more complicated.
Streaming services shuffle movies on and off their platforms so regularly – Blade Runner, one of Cinemark’s picks, has gone on and off of Netflix just in the past few months – that keeping track of what is and isn’t streaming at a given moment can be a genuinely difficult thing.
As of June 19, only 13 of these 37 movies are completely unavailable by regular subscription. On the other hand, to get access to the other 24, you would need Netflix, Disney+, HBO Max, something I’ve never heard of before called Sling TV and Hulu with the Showtime, Live TV and STARZ addons, a collection which would run you $140 per month. On yet a third hand, all of these movies are available on-demand over the internet through several services for $3-$4 each.
Given how often the ground shifts on streaming and the fact that on-demand screenings are universally available, I’m guessing none of this factored into Cinemark’s decision-making directly. The fact is, if people want to see a movie on their computer, they always can, and individual titles will do nothing to fight that.
What about other theater chains?
Studio Movie Grill is also opening today with a similar idea, the SMG Classics, but a much lazier execution – their classics list also features The Wizard of Oz, The Goonies and Wonder Woman alongside Batman Begins, Aquaman, Shazam!, the 2017 It and Annabelle, the bottom-of-the-barrel spinoff of a bottom-of-the-barrel modern horror series. The chain is also hosting free screenings of Just Mercy, about Equal Justice Initiative founder Bryan Stevenson, and Selma, about Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march across Alabama, in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Note the presence of four superhero movies, none of which are in the MCU and therefore streaming on Disney+. Star Wars is also noticeably absent here.
But most alarmingly, Studio Movie Grill is running the entire Harry Potter series and the all three Lord of the Rings extended editions, which says to me that they didn’t put a great deal of thought into this. Marathons of fantasy series, and these series in particular, are common practice today, but among friends and in one’s own home with all the booze you like, not socially distant in a theater with $20 bowls of obviously microwaved pasta. The extended Lord of the Rings movies betrays a particular misunderstanding – people don’t sit still for four hours and watch those, they take breaks and move around. Those movies never would have become the cultural touchstones they are today without the more modest theatrical editions.
If Studio Movie Grill is being so lazy with their selection of classics, could Cinemark’s be essentially random as well? Have I spent 12 hours cataloguing, analyzing and writing about decisions that were made in 20 minutes?
That thought has occurred to me.
Among the other major chains – Cinemark is the third largest in the nation – second-largest chain Regal Cinemas has announced it will open July 10, with no mention of a COVID-19 related classics series. As for the world’s largest theater chain, AMC…
AMC is having a really hard time right now, and they just don’t want to talk about it. Hopefully Tenet does really, really well at their theaters specifically.
So, which of these movies should I go see?
What? None of them! Are you psychotic?
There’s a plague on! This is just – I just thought it was a neat marketing exercise, no movie is worth a trip to the hospital!