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The year that broke the movie mold

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

They're calling it superhero fatigue. 2023 was the year cracks showed in Marvel's armor. Audiences did not flock to see "Ant-Man" or "The Marvels" or, for that matter, to DC's "Flash" or "Aquaman." But that did not keep Hollywood from making $2 billion more than it did the year before. Critic Bob Mondello wonders if 2023 might be the year that broke the movie mold.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Come back with me for a moment to July 19.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

HARI NEF: (As Barbie) This is the best day ever.

MARGO ROBBIE: (As Barbie) It is the best day ever. So was yesterday, and so is tomorrow and every day from now until forever.

MONDELLO: Not a superhero in sight, and yet movies are all anyone can talk about. A hot pink comedy and a brooding biopic...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

CILLIAN MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) This is a national emergency.

MONDELLO: ...Have been linked in the public mind, and Hollywood's rulebook has flown out the window.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "OPPENHEIMER")

MURPHY: (As J. Robert Oppenheimer) Keep everyone there until it's done.

MONDELLO: These are not star vehicles or pre-sold franchises - no spandex, no animation, no streaming. You have to go to a theater. And people are lining up - tens of millions of people. For a few blissed-out weeks, movies are the dominant art form again...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BARBIE")

ISSA RAE: (As President Barbie) OK, ladies. Let's do this.

MONDELLO: ...All because Hollywood has done what people have been saying for years that it should - program something unexpected, something that isn't a sequel, something that makes seeing it in a theater with other people sound more appealing than sitting at home and streaming it in private. Three months later, that happened again.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TAYLOR SWIFT: THE ERAS TOUR")

TAYLOR SWIFT: (Singing) Are you ready for it?

MONDELLO: This time it was a pop star, Taylor Swift, bypassing movie studios and selling her concert film directly to theater owners. She and they made so much money in just a few weekends that cinemas are now looking at all sorts of alternative entertainments, from sports to stage shows.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITRESS: THE MUSICAL")

SARA BAREILLES: (As Jenna Hunterson, singing) Sugar, butter.

MONDELLO: A filmed version of the live stage production of the Broadway musical "Waitress" made $5 million last month.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WAITRESS: THE MUSICAL")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Looking around at the same things.

MONDELLO: Marvel and DC, meanwhile, have been doing some serious soul-searching. Instead of each fielding four or five big-budget superhero releases in 2024, they've radically cut back. Partly that's about strike-related production delays, but it's also about dwindling box office, all of which suggests a path that Hollywood could take. There is a model because something similar happened back in the 1960s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The most powerful motion picture entertainment of all time.

MONDELLO: Studios had been chasing audiences with epics and musicals that kept getting bigger and more expensive, and audiences got bored and shifted to scruffy indie flicks like "Easy Rider" and "Midnight Cowboy."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MIDNIGHT COWBOY")

DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (As Ratso) I'm walking here.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORN HONKING)

HOFFMAN: (As Ratso) I'm walking here.

MONDELLO: And then they shifted to a whole new generation of filmmakers - Kubrick, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola - who had a different idea of what a movie could look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STAR WARS")

MARK HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) I'm Luke Skywalker. I'm here to rescue you. I've got your R2 unit. I'm here with Ben Kenobi.

CARRIE FISHER: (As Princess Leia) Ben Kenobi? Where is he?

HAMILL: (As Luke Skywalker) Come on.

MONDELLO: It took the audience pointing the way. Scruffy indies and genre mashups had been around for a while. They'd just never been big box office. And today is much the same. Woman-directed films, serious biopics, concert movies are nothing new. They're just newly in vogue and also in the pipeline, so you'll be seeing more of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

KINGSLEY BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley, singing) Redemption song.

LASHANA LYNCH: (As Rita Marley) When did you write that?

BEN-ADIR: (As Bob Marley) All my life.

MONDELLO: This is a case in point - a Bob Marley heavy-on-the-concerts biopic. It's called "One Love," and it'll open on Valentine's Day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BOB MARLEY: ONE LOVE")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Are you ready for Bob Marley and The Wonders?

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COULD YOU BE LOVED")

BOB MARLEY AND THE WAILERS: (Singing) Don't let them fool you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.