From Hidden Figures to Silence: The False Battles of Hollywood

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Image from Variety.

This week at the American box office, Hidden Figures topped the charts for the second week running. The historical drama focusing on the work of the overlooked African American women who played key parts in the early days of the NASA space program, has received enthusiastic responses from critics as well as audiences. Many of my American friends reported having trouble getting into screenings due to high demand.

This same week, Ben Affleck’s latest directorial effort Live By Night fell short of expected grosses, while Mark Wahlberg’s Patriots Day fell $5m short of projected estimates, and Martin Scorsese’s passion project Silence disappointed in its expansion from 51 cinemas to over 700, earning only $2.4m. January is a strange cinema season: It’s considered dumping ground for studios’ less accomplished efforts, but also sees the prestige films and Oscar hopefuls reach a more general audience after the mandatory limited New York and Los Angeles releases in December. Box office expectations are different than, say, Summer blockbuster season, but this movement to wider audience reach plays a key role in how films are distributed for the rest of the year.

There’s a lot to unpack here: Audience desires, critical power, the importance of good marketing, the skewed expectations of the industry, and so on, but I want to start with some messages I saw across Twitter once the box office numbers came out. There seemed to be a split between fans of Silence and those of Hidden Figures. Many were understandably disappointed that Silence was underperforming so much, particularly since Scorsese fought for so long to get it made. However, this disappointment from some turned to attacks on the merits of Hidden Figures, which is a very different film and under other circumstances wouldn’t be compared to Silence.

Awards season brings out a lot of tension in Film Twitter. It’s a gloriously low stakes situation that can often be incredibly fun to over-invest in, but sometimes it’s exhausting because, while the Oscars and such aren’t an indicator of merit or quality, they do act as a microcosm of how the industry views certain stories and certain people. There is a generally assumed idea of what an Awards Bait Movie is: Based on a true story; full of dramatic and very obvious acting; emotional but still uplifting; based on award winning material; and crafted by an auteur. Sometimes the film that deserves Best Picture actually wins it (most recently, Twelve Years a Slave) but more often than not it’s down to marketing and campaigning, and that’s where the Hidden Figures-Silence box office numbers highlight a fascinating shift for Hollywood, but one that’s still rooted in preferred norms.

Hidden Figures is the kind of story Hollywood loves, but it’s seldom told about the people featured. Biopics and historical dramas as dictated by the mainstream film industry tend to be about white people, usually men, even if the narrative is about the people of colour involved. There are dozens of biopics about tortured artists and ‘geniuses’ of history – Alan Turing, Stephen Hawking, Truman Capote, Johnny Cash, King George VI, and so on – but they tend to be almost exclusively white men. A film based on a true story where the protagonists are women of colour who aren’t slaves or maids is a shockingly rare occurrence in Hollywood film, and one we’re told doesn’t sell. The assumed default mode of universally relatable history is that of an older white man with a tortured past and a loyal but poorly developed wife. For this film to dominate the box office as it has, beating out competition that was assumed to be a safer financial bet, shows that yet again, audiences are several steps ahead of the industry. The unspoken consumer power of dismissed audiences – in this case, African American women – roars loudly.

That’s not to say that Silence’s struggles should be dismissed or seen as a positive sign of change in the industry – it’s clearly a problem cut from the same cloth. Silence is an oddity – it’s a Scorsese film that doesn’t fit most casual cinemagoers’ preconceptions about what a Scorsese film looks like; it’s long and very emotionally turbulent and takes on a difficult subject that’s a turn-off for a lot of movie fans. It wasn’t cheap to make but still cost half of the budget of The Wolf of Wall Street. It doesn’t have massive stars in it but the A-List model is hardly relevant these days. It fits the mould of Awards Bait but it really isn’t that kind of film – it’s nowhere neat enough for that.

Hollywood doesn’t make movies like Silence, or indeed Hidden Figures, unless they see critical profit in its horizons. Outside of the 9-figure blockbuster tent-poles that need to make billions just to keep the lights on, and the handful of scrappy indie passion projects that scrape by on the margins, there’s very little room for a mid-budget adult focused drama unless it’s seen as an Oscar winner. That’s why many films get listed as awards bait when they don’t fit the bill, just because they come out at a specific time of the year.

The failures of Silence highlight the blind spots the industry seems unwilling to acknowledge in the same way the successes of Hidden Figures emphasizes Hollywood’s refusal to change its archaic model. A film like Silence needs real word of mouth momentum to drive it through the Winter months, yet its distributors sorely missed the mark on marketing it to audiences who would appreciate that story. Indeed, the TV spots are difficult to decipher unless you already know the story (my dad is a huge Scorsese fan and he had no idea what the film was about, even after seeing multiple ads for it). It’s a very adult movie which needs smart advertising to reach a specific audience amidst tough competition, and it failed to do that, despite very enthusiastic critical reception. Potential Oscar nominations will play a big part in further commercial success too, but that also feels like part of the problem. That these films need the approval of a pretty ridiculous board of voters in order to make money continues the cycle of only making them to win awards because that’s the only way such films make money. Nobody wins with this model.

The success of Hidden Figures should be lauded by everyone because it breaks a stereotype Hollywood has clung to long after it was proven wrong: The insistence that movies about people of colour won’t sell to white audiences. In contrast, the under-performance of Silence reminds us that Hollywood has become an increasingly difficult place to make a movie that isn’t about superheroes. Film lovers benefit the most when the greatest spectrum of stories are able to be told, supported by an enthusiastic consumer-base and free from the restrictions of assumed critical merit or nobility. That’s an area where we can all find common ground.

And we find further common ground from Patriots Day sinking. Everyone benefits from that.

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