Not exactly the most attention-grabbing news ever reported, but it is worth keeping our eyes peeled for signs of change back toward the film-making culture that we all love from the '70s and '80s. The current trends have been going on for over two decades now, and will run out of steam sometime in the next 5 to 10 years. But so far, there are no observable signs of change away from the dullification of movies.
A quick check of the traits that characterize the top box office draws in 2014 shows a mindless continuation of four major existing trends:
1. Unoriginal storytelling (earlier post here with data since 1936). Whether the stories are adaptations of existing stories, or sequels to existing movies, none of the top 10 movies in America were original.
You might try to excuse The LEGO Movie, since it was not a sequel and did not adapt a clearly defined existing story. But you weren't going to see that for the narrative or character arcs. You went to see the Lego-style visual animation. Its visual style was entirely familiar to the audience and adapted from the toys, video games, and cartoons done in the Lego style, so I count that movie as an adaptation. Also the pandering title shows that audiences would only be drawn by instant brand recognition -- it doesn't hint at what the movie is about, or offer a mysterious title to pique our curiosity. It's just: "You think Legos look cool? Well here they are, in a movie!"
Broadening the view to include the top 20 movies doesn't help. There are only 2 original stories in the 11-20 spots -- Interstellar and Neighbors. Only 2 in the top 20, or 1 in 10 original stories. Pretty sad.
2. Disappearance of separate movie cultures for children, adolescents, and adults (earlier post here on the MPAA ratings of top movies since 1969). Almost everything is PG-13 or PG.
There were no G-rated movies in the top 20, in contrast to the late '70s when The Muppet Movie was the #10 movie and rated G. Last year's LEGO Movie, however, was rated PG because they had to cram in adult-ish stuff to entertain the parents as well as the kids, rather than let kids have their own autonomous culture.
At the other extreme, there was only 1 movie rated R in the top 10 for 2014, although there were 4 in the top 20, or a rate of 2 in 10. A far cry from the '70s and '80s when mature themes could be treated without parents throwing a fit because they didn't plan on bringing their kids to those R-rated movies. Today, just as children are not allowed to have their own culture, neither are adults.
Helicopter parenting demands popular culture that is "fun for the whole family" (AKA bore the whole family), because parents won't see movies on their own anymore. That would involve leaving the kids under someone else's watch for a few hours, and y'know how that's bound to end up -- finding them bound, raped, and murdered in a ditch on the drive back home.
3. Comedies are still rare (earlier post here on the popularity of the comedy genre since 1915). None of the top 10 movies were comedies, although 2 of the top 20 were, for a rate of 1 in 10. I don't count kiddie movies because that isn't comedy, but rather cutesy and clowny humor with the occasional yuk-yuk gags. Even counting 22 Jump Street and Neighbors is being generous, since those are just juvenile yuk-yuk movies, not where there's some comedic dynamic that runs throughout the movie.
Since comedies are most popular in rising-crime times, they seem to fulfill the need for catharsis and resilience during such topsy-turvy times. In a world that is becoming safer and safer, folks aren't as likely to be in a state of physiological arousal, and don't have as much need for comedic relief in their lives.
Also worth noting that the two comedies for 2014 did not pair a light comedic tone with darker themes, as used to be the norm in the '80s. Back then, a comedy was always an action comedy, war comedy, horror comedy, or drama comedy. That pairing of light and dark themes emphasized the role of comedy as a relief from situations in life that would otherwise be depressing, frightening, or overwhelming.
4. Running times are still very long, especially considering how juvenile the subject matter is (earlier post here on running times since 1921). Using the top 10 or top 20 didn't matter. Average running time was 2 hrs 6 min, median was 2 hrs 7 min, minimum was about 1 hr 37 min, and max was about 2 hrs 45-50 min.
As with Midcentury cocooners, today's cocooners require something spectacular to get them out of their domestic fortresses, for it to really be "worth it". In cocooning times, people also seem to prefer drawn-out experiences rather than ones that pack a cathartic punch. In the Midcentury, serial dramas on the radio were more important than movies, just as serial dramas on TV these days are more important than movies. One mode is for folks who are generally bored during the day, the other for ones who already have other exciting stories to participate in in-real-life.
So there you have it: if you sensed that movies in 2014 have been continuing the trend toward tediousness, you were right. I confess that I only saw two new movies last year, Interstellar and Transcendence, and it doesn't look like I missed much. I began tuning out of new releases during the second half of the '90s, and have rarely felt regret when I've caught up later on. There's simply too many from the good old days to feel deprived by choosing to see "new" movies from the past than from the present.