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Why every Hollywood movie is a superhero movie

On Recode Media, “The Big Picture” author Ben Fritz explains how Disney keeps on winning.

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Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther”
Michael B. Jordan and Chadwick Boseman in “Black Panther”
Marvel Studios / Black Panther

Big-budget movies have been a mainstay of American cinema since the release of “Jaws” in 1975. But increasingly, it feels like action-packed CGI-laden superhero-friendly fare is one of the only things showing at your local movie theater — and there’s a good reason for that.

It may sound obvious, but it’s true: People don’t want to leave the house if they think they’re not missing anything, journalist Ben Fritz says. In his new book, “The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies,” Fritz explains that the two types of movies that get people into theaters reliably are spectacles and cultural events like “Get Out” or “Black Panther.”

“One of the few advantages the major studios have left is Netflix and Amazon don’t seem to [know], how do you create an event?” Fritz said on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. “When the movie comes out, you see it on billboards everywhere, it’s playing in a local multiplex near you, and people who are seeing it are all seeing it together, or seeing it at the same time. It’s not just ‘on my queue, I’m gonna get to it.’ We’re all seeing ‘Black Panther’ right now, it’s a major event.”

And indeed, Marvel movies like “Black Panther” are benefiting from the evolving movie business in a big way, while Fritz’s book explains how studios like Sony that have rowed in the opposite direction have lost their way. For the movie industry, he said, brands are now more important than people. Original films led by name-brand stars and directors have been relegated to “the fringes of the business.”

“You buy an Apple product because you love Apple,” he said. “You go and see a Marvel movie because you’re loyal to Marvel. This has transformed the economics of the business.”

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On the new podcast, Fritz also explained how Sony fumbled its early superhero success story, “Spider-Man.” Basing much of his book on emails from the 2014 Sony hack, he said the studio misunderstood why the franchise was popular with audiences.

“The thing about ‘Spider-Man’ was that it was, in their minds, attached to the talent,” Fritz said. “It was attached to Tobey Maguire, the star, and Sam Raimi, the director. As they got more and more powerful and demanded more and more money, the profits from those movies went down and they creatively got worse.”

When Bob Iger came in to run Disney in 2005, he focused the company’s movie division on brands, which has led to an impressive decade-plus of film hits from Disney-owned studios like Pixar and Marvel. In Fritz’s view, Iger understood a truth that Sony did not: That with the right people making the creative decisions, the brand of a “Marvel film” would turn into a money machine.

“Sony had the opportunity to buy the movie rights to virtually every Marvel character for $25 million,” he said. “And the response of the executives was, ‘Who’s ever going to be interested in seeing a movie about Iron Man or Captain America or Black Panther? Nobody cares about them!’”


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