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8 Lessons We Learned from the 2018 Summer Movie Season, From Women Hitting Big to Documentaries Taking Charge

Netflix can save the rom-com, Mr. Rogers is a bigger star than the Rock, and more lessons we learned from the 2018 summer movie season.

"BlacKkKlansman"

“BlacKkKlansman”

Focus Features

Another summer movie season has come and gone, and the film industry is a much different place at the end of August than it was at the start of May (or the middle of April, or whenever summer technically starts on the Hollywood calendar). As always, it’s been an enlightening time, full of huge surprises and game-changing takeaways. Three months ago, no one would have guessed that a Supreme Court Justice would — pound for pound — prove to be a greater box office draw than Dwayne Johnson, or that a movie about Jason Statham fighting a giant shark would be on pace to outgross Han Solo’s origin story. Three months ago, no one knew that Tom Cruise was about to make us forget that “The Mummy” ever happened, or that rom-coms were on the verge of a huge comeback (both in theaters and at home).

It’s a brave new world, and mostly for the better. Here are nine lessons we learned from the 2018 summer movie season.

1. Audiences Want to Support the Girls

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

It’s always heartening when standout festival hits are even bought, let alone released within a timeframe that isn’t “months and months later” or “hey, what is that movie?” or “wait, didn’t that already come out?,” and this summer at the speciality box office has played home to not just one or two of these films, but four. First up, Bo Burnham’s aching “Eighth Grade” has steadily ratcheted up its release, and after just six weeks in theaters, the Sundance hit has made over $10 million (and that’s not even counting the money it “lost” by throwing all-ages screening of the R-rated film).

In August alone, three of some of the best indie films about (and, in this case, by women) have opened to the welcoming embrace of speciality audiences looking to see something that doesn’t necessarily involve another superhero or another franchise. Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” gave distributor FilmRise the biggest opening in its history (by a pretty big berth) when it lead all speciality openers in its first week, topping out at $53,000 over a single weekend in only two theaters. The next weekend, Josephine Decker’s “Madeline’s Madeline” made over $20,000 in its first weekend of release — in just one city, in just one theater — while Crystal Moselle’s “Skate Kitchen” made over $17K using the same steadily expanding release strategy. And studio films centered around — and mostly marketed to — women have also succeeded, from “Ocean’s 8” to “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again,” proving there’s enough interest to go around. Women (and people of color) are a major force at the box office. If only there was some way of getting Hollywood to remember that. — KE

2. Spike Lee’s Still Got It

Okay, let’s actually take a moment to clarify that: Spike Lee never lost it. Sure, “Miracle at St. Anna” was a bit soporific, and that “Oldboy” remake will always remain the most inexplicable chapter of his filmography, but let’s not pretend that “BlacKkKlansman” is some kind of late-career return to form. Lee was never really gone, so you can save the comeback narrative for Paul Schrader (and even then it’s a bit of a stretch). He was just exploring. And don’t even try to say that he’s suddenly reanimated, or that he needed all this Trump bullshit to reignite his anger; “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is not the work of someone in search of a pulse, and “Chi-Raq” is as urgent and fed up a film as Lee has ever made (“this is an emergency!”).

Lee has never stopped saying things that we needed to hear — the difference with “BlacKkKlansman” is that he’s forcing the world to listen. Now that people have gone and put a White Nationalist in the White House, it’s no surprise that Lee feels compelled to speak a bit louder, and perhaps less subtly. A contemporary update of “Lysistrata” was a clever idea a few years ago, but things have gotten too obvious and out in the open for such a roundabout approach. It’s time to burn down the legacy of “Birth of a Nation” once and for all, to smash-cut to Charlottesville at the end of a dark comedy (even if Lee wouldn’t call it that), and to rub our faces in the mess we’ve made. These are not subtle times, and they call for artists who aren’t afraid to embrace that. Lee may not have gone anywhere, but “BlacKkKlansman” sure made us glad that he’s still here. — DE

3. Documentaries Are Leading the Conversation

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

The old dictum that truth is stranger than fiction has never felt more potent than it does now. While certain movies can provide some escape from the chaos of modern times, documentaries often help put them in context. This summer was a particularly thrilling example. As America grappled with some of the most divisive rhetoric in its history, Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” provided an excuse to contemplate the value of sane, intelligent dialogue and the ability to modulate emotions in a mature fashion — in essence, Fred Rogers was the anti-Trump — and the movie’s stellar box office performance (close to $22 million so far) proved that the portrait resonated in a big way.

It arrived on the heels of the ultimate catharsis to the news that Anthony Kennedy was retiring from the Supreme Court: “RGB,” a rousing look at Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s ability to inject her principles into the nation’s highest court and continue fighting for them to this day. To date, it’s grossed $13.5 million, proving that audiences don’t want to hide their eyes from the headlines; they just need the proper context for processing them. Both movies have cut through the noise of cable news to provide cogent illustrations of what it takes to make the world a better place. It’s one thing to talk fondly of Mr. Rogers through the prism of nostalgia and wax poetic on RGB’s perseverance through the years; it’s something else altogether to watch them, in ample archival footage, getting the work done. In dark days, they offered some measure of hope. — EK

4. Summer Has Become the Sundance Movie Season

A24

While there’s still a small handful of Sundance premieres that fall off the face of the Earth until they suddenly reappear for your consideration nine months later (e.g. “Call Me By Your Name”, “Manchester by the Sea”, and this year’s “Wildlife”), the vast majority of that festival’s best now hit theaters at the height of summer, giving a welcome new meaning to Independence Day. Over the last few months, virtually every weekend has seen the release of a major Sundance breakout, and many of them have cut deeper into the culture than the superhero movies they’ve opened against.

Read More: ‘Hereditary’ Breaks A24 Box Office Record for Highest Grossing Indie Release Worldwide

Non-fiction mega-sensations like “RGB”, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, and “Three Identical Strangers” were just a part of the story. “Hereditary” rode a smart campaign and passionate word-of-mouth to perfect A24’s strategy of luring mass audiences towards art horror (or whatever you want to call it), and became the label’s biggest hit. “Eighth Grade” just cleared eight figures, and literally everyone you know has at least heard about it.

“Leave No Trace” did stellar business for a movie about Ben Foster walking around in the Portland wilderness with his daughter, “Sorry to Bother You” and “Blindspotting” both cracked into the conversation, “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” and “Madeline’s Madeline” have been turning Manhattan’s Quad theater into a mob scene, “Hearts Beat Loud” picked up a few million dollars (and some major Spotify plays), and “Skate Kitchen” is just getting started. Some of this success can definitely be attributed to MoviePass, but that doesn’t change the fact that summer movie season ain’t what it used to be. —DE

5. Whatever the Rock Is Cooking Is Starting to Smell Bad

Dwayne Johnson in Skyscraper

“Skyscraper”

Universal

“Jumanji” may have been one of the biggest and most inexplicable monster hits of last year (audiences just can’t get enough of Nick Jonas!), but summer 2018 clarified something we’d already come to suspect about its absurdly ripped leading man: Dwayne Johnson can’t really open a movie. Not by himself, anyway. Despite his infectious charisma, a starring role on Elizabeth Warren’s favorite TV show, and the fact that his deltoids are big enough to qualify for their own SAG cards, The Rock isn’t strong enough to carry a blockbuster without a pre-established property. At least, not in the United States.

“Rampage” topped out at less than $100 million domestic, and its general awfulness only made it harder to muster any significant interest in “Skyscraper” a few months later. As of publication, that derivative spectacle — essentially “Die Hard” for the lowest common denominator — has still grossed less than “Book Club.” The lesson here is clear: Mary Steenburgen should be the love interest in “Skyscraper 2”.

The other lesson is that Johnson needs to up his game in a big way if he actually wants to shoulder massive summer movies on the power of his personal brand. It’s not his fault that the star system began to fade out just as he arrived in Hollywood, but it could be his cross to bear. There’s no doubt that Johnson is a generational talent; likewise, there’s no doubt that he’s plotted his career with all the risk of a politician during an election year (people always assume that he’s running for office because he literally acts like he is). Johnson is never going to walk tall until he starts taking risks — he’s never going to be enough until he starts making movies that aspire to be something more. —DE

6. Paul Schrader Makes His Best Movie in Years

“First Reformed”

Few American filmmakers have kept swinging for the fences like Paul Schrader, and even when he’s struck out he has at least produced work worthy of exploration. No matter the plot holes of “The Canyons” or the tonal messiness of “Dog Eat Dog,” it was clear that the “Taxi Driver” scribe’s gritty vision of flawed, passionate men remained intact, searching for the right vessel.

At long last, he found it, by uniting his interest in transcendental cinema with a modern hook: “First Reformed” gives Ethan Hawke his best role in years as a troubled upstate priest drawn into a risky eco-terrorism plot as he develops a relationship with a local widow. The eloquent, slow-burn movie takes a series of risky twists but never falters from its tense pace and a striking capacity to hover within its moody protagonist’s worldview. That pushes the boundary between real and imagined events into a state of remarkable ambiguity all the way through the shocking finale, which ranks as Schrader’s very best. The movie is a shrewd meditation on religion, activism, and the environment — in other words, it hits the zeitgeist from several angles at once, which helps explain why it has resonated all summer long. To date, “First Reformed” has pulled in nearly $3.5 million, no small feat for a movie so tough to categorize, but no great surprise when you actually see it. “First Reformed” is such a terrific conversation-starter than it became the talking point of the summer, and the dialogue around it is poised to last much longer than that. —EK

7. Studio Comedies Are Quietly Thriving

“Tag”

Kyle Kaplan

For a minute there, it seemed like the studios were just going to sit back and let the entire comedy genre migrate to streaming, or get folded into massive superhero blockbusters — if you can pack that many solid jokes into “Thor: Ragnarok,” what’s the point of making funny movies that won’t gross a gajillion dollars and serve as giant ads for the next “Avengers”? Besides, aren’t comedies naturally better suited to Netflix, where they don’t have to be so broad all the time? It’s hard to be funny when you’re trying to make people laugh on 3,000 screens across the country.

And yet, comedies are some of the only mid-budget movies that studios are (still) consistently willing to finance, if not quite at the same rate as before. This summer, we saw that even the bad ones can still be a good bet. Remember “Tag,” the movie that became known for Jeremy Renner’s CGI arms? It feels like it came and went without a trace. And yet, the Warner Bros. release earned more than $76 million worldwide off a $28 million budget and a 55% Rotten Tomatoes score. The numbers are even more lopsided with Anna Faris and Eugenio Derbez’s cheaply produced “Overboard,” which earned $91 million with a 26% score. The winsome “Uncle Drew” turned a profit with its $44 million gross, while earlier 2018 releases like “Game Night” and “Blockers” proved that these numbers were par for the course. And though “Crazy Rich Asians” is a cultural phenomenon unto itself, its success only bolsters the idea that people are still willing to leave their homes for a good laugh. —DE

8. Netflix Goes to the Next Level

MWP_3279.tif

“To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before”

Masha_Weisberg/Netflix

Once upon a time, it was easy enough to judge a Netflix title sight unseen. All you needed was to remember this simple formula: If a Netflix title didn’t premiere at a film festival, there was reason for suspicion. Until this summer, that equation virtually never failed. And then two romantic comedies came along and made that thinking completely irrelevant, forever and for better. It started in mid-June, when Claire Scanlon’s “Set It Up” started to stream, and became an instant phenomenon. A charming and contemporary throwback that stars the hyper-likable Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell as overworked assistants who scheme to set up their respective bosses, the film delighted people by marrying a modern comic sensibility with traditional genre tropes. In August, Netflix followed that up with Susan Johnson’s “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before,” which minted Lana Condor as a rising star, pushed back against the demented wisdom of white-washing young adult stories, and offered a refreshingly muted and honest look at the perils of following your heart and finding your place. These are wonderful movies that could have been swept under the rug at Sundance or TIFF, but were right at home in the comfort of our living rooms. —DE 

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