Depending on who you listen to, cinema is dying. Or cinema is dead. Pining for the fjords, or soon to be buried, don’t forget: the medium of film is in serious trouble. Recently, director Steven Soderbergh—who’s been very public about retiring for the last couple of years, and is finally heading out after his HBO biopic about Liberace premieres later this month—gave an address at the San Francisco International Film Festival, holding court for nearly an hour on how the difference between cinema and movies has opened an immense and irreparable divide between art and commerce, one that few filmmakers can bridge. Over the weekend, this video was posted around the Internet; in it, Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle categorized the problem he saw with mainstream cinema as being the “Pixarification” of films.
Boyle, still doing press for his new film Trance, decried the lack of “adult films” in the modern movie marketplace and has a few places to lay the blame, with Pixar Animation Studios as well as with the Star Wars franchise. He specifies his frustration with the so-called “Pixarification” of movies; he argues that movies these days are too family-friendly, even if what Pixar does, he seems loathe to admit, is sophisticated storytelling. To be fair, some aspects of his basic argument are sound—the term “adult film” is now exclusively related to…well, adult films of a more illicit nature, not mature dramas like Don’t Look Now. However, laying this problem at Pixar’s proverbial feet is laughable and misguided. He doesn’t go so far as to insult any of their films directly, but throughout the three-minute video, Boyle adopts a tone of paternal apology, as if he hates to be the one to break it to us, but Pixar kickstarted the modern death of cinema.
So, what is Pixarifcation? What is this meant to represent to the world of modern film? Boyle is essentially arguing that Hollywood is being safer in its choices of what to make, what to throw money at. We get sci-franchises, superhero movies, animated stories, and so on, but not enough “adult filmmaking,” specifically those films that may be similar in tone or spirit to the works of Nicolas Roeg or any number of pioneering filmmakers who received more creative freedom in the 1970s. Note here that Boyle’s not wrong about Hollywood’s reliance on these movies. The flaw inherent in Boyle’s argument is that he’s fixated on the past, not the future. Soderbergh’s 45-minute keynote speech is, if nothing else, more nuanced in its delineation of what he sees as being the major faults of the current studio system. Boyle, partly because he’s in a press-junket setting, isn’t able to delve very deep into his argument, but what we have is a fairly bite-sized response that sounds as if it’s resistant to or ignorant of the changes going on in modern cinema, not only in how it’s created but how it’s consumed.
There’s no denying that the modern studio system has, indeed, shifted thanks in no small part to the Star Wars franchise and its widespread success. (If Boyle wanted to wring his hands over the state of cinema, he might as well have focused squarely on this, or potentially the recent glut of superhero franchises from Marvel and DC, all of which are easily financially more influential than anything Pixar’s made.) And Boyle concedes that Pixar’s films are amazing and, again, “sophisticated,” a term that is appropriate but one people feel the urge to use so they make clear that it’s better than the average animated movie, while still being, y’know, a cartoon. What Boyle is most concerned with, at least in the framework of this video, is that Pixar’s films, and those from any other studio aping their template, are “family-friendly.” No one—certainly not this writer—would argue that Pixar’s films, as well as any other animated movie from a mainstream studio, aren’t family-friendly, but why should that matter?
Boyle, specifically, would do well to remember that movies like those Pixar makes are not the only ones available to audiences worldwide. He appears to presume that adult filmmaking can only thrive if studios like Disney, Paramount, or Warner Bros. fund such works directly. (Soderbergh, who was given much more time to elucidate his points, didn’t focus expressly on this issue in his address.) If adult films do not get promoted by massive studios, then no one will see them, apparently. How, then, do we explain films like The Master or Zero Dark Thirty or Django Unchained or Magic Mike, all of which were released in 2012 and got fairly wide releases? These are films from major, well-respected filmmakers, all of them rated R, and all of them complex, mature stories. (Zero Dark Thirty, it should be said, came from Columbia and Magic Mike, directed by Soderbergh, from Warner Bros.) All should be qualified under that “adult filmmaking” descriptor, but what Boyle fixates on are franchises killing every possible “adult film.”
It’s easy to focus squarely on the big studios, on the faceless corporations that make up what we perceive to be Hollywood, mostly because such a surface-level argument doesn’t require much thought. Cinema is dead because studios are allowing themselves to be influenced by one filmmaker or, in this case, a single-minded group of filmmakers. In truth, we should be so lucky for every animated movie—or every movie, as Boyle allows “Pixarification” to, strangely, represent the entirety of mainstream cinema—to be as good as the best Pixar has made. Boyle’s hand-wringing here is unnecessary and misguided; you have to wonder if he’s positing that his own movies—among them Millions, which one could dare to brand as, yes, family-friendly—are a soothing balm to the lack of adult filmmaking in the Western marketplace. Boyle’s career has seen plenty of highs, as with Slumdog Millionaire, which garnered his Best Director Oscar as well as one for Best Picture. But it’s seen lows, unless you still hold a candle for The Beach.
Boyle’s career to date, though, isn’t proof for or against adult filmmaking. Is Danny Boyle the only person on the planet making films that aren’t for families, that aren’t for children? Is he the only director free of the franchise virus? Of course not. As Steven Soderbergh proved, you can argue that cinema is dying without sounding like a concern troll; he spoke to his audience without condescending to them, hoping to educate them through his many experiences dealing with studio executives throughout Hollywood. Where Boyle screws up in his argument is in slamming, even implicitly, Pixar. He takes other studios to task for copying them, but when you dub the failure of mainstream film as the “Pixarification” of the medium, it’s hard not to see him pointing a finger towards Emeryville.
Boyle’s attempt, even if mildly, to tarnish Pixar’s brand by blaming them for being influential is, more than anything else, silly. Movies like Ratatouille and Up do not come around every day. They are absolutely targeted at the whole family, but within that is the trademark of the best Pixar film, what distinguishes them from what other studios offer: these films are targeted at the whole family, not just children. They are, at their best, universal works of art. Children can appreciate and love these movies, but in ways that adults do not, and vice versa. Perhaps the best question inspired by Boyle’s argument is this: what is wrong with being family-friendly? If all movies were family-friendly, Boyle being frustrated would make sense. But what makes cinema so grand, so exciting, so bold is that it offers us diversity, even more now than before.
Now that the summer movie season is once again upon us, Boyle’s argument may feel more timely, but it’s still backwards. The big new mainstream release last weekend was the latest Marvel superhero film, Iron Man 3. Is it the only movie available in your area of the country or world? Maybe the only new release, but depending on how big your multiplex or metropolitan area are, you could watch the newest film from a Robert Redford or a Terrence Malick; in the weeks to come, you can see films from Mira Nair, Ramin Bahrani, Noah Baumbach, Sarah Polley, Woody Allen, Richard Linklater, and more. Adult filmmaking is only vanishing if you wear blinders. And frankly, to present Pixar as the opposite of adult filmmaking because they make movies the whole family can enjoy is a weirdly aimed insult.
A film from Pete Docter or Andrew Stanton or Brad Bird may not be as adult, as mature, as something from Paul Thomas Anderson or Martin Scorsese, but that does not mean it is absent of worth or complex ideas. True, not every Pixar film is created equally; neither is every mainstream or independent film. Just because a film is created with adults in mind, or teenagers who wish to see more adult content, does not mean it’s qualitatively worthy. (Trance is a prime example of this sentence, unsurprisingly.) Danny Boyle paints with too broad a brush by saying cinema is going down the tubes because of its “Pixarification,” or he simply chooses to ignore all of the recent films that serve to prove his point as faulty.
To fret about the future of cinema is fairly common nowadays, almost as frequent a refrain as saying that film criticism is dying. Whether or not those concepts are true is separate from this truth: cinema is changing. Cinema changes every day, even if we’re not conscious of it. Some of these changes, as with any change in life, are painful or misbegotten. And some of these changes are beneficial to the medium. To presume that all big-budget blockbusters are a menace and scourge of the diversity of cinema is to ignore some of these movies’ best qualities and those of the countless independent films opening every week across the world. To argue that whatever flaws in mainstream cinema lie squarely, if inadvertently, on Pixar’s shoulders is baseless. Danny Boyle essentially says that because Pixar makes good movies, Hollywood tries to copy them, and their copies are bad, so it’s Pixar’s fault. (Again, if Pixar is not to blame, then maybe Boyle shouldn’t use their name when summing up his problem.) If Pixar’s biggest problem is being too good to replicate, then the problem Danny Boyle has is with Hollywood. And if he has a problem with a dearth of adult filmmaking in the 21st century, then the solution is simple: watch more and different movies.