What the Hell Do People Want Out of Movies?

No, really, I want to know: What the hell do audiences want out of movies?

That is the question on my mind this week as I look at the box-office numbers for The Fall Guy, the new action comedy that also serves as the unofficial kickoff of summer movie season. Variety says the film “fell just short of expectations with $28.5 million” at the weekend box office in North America. Compared to those expectations, the numbers aren’t disastrous — The Fall Guy was only projected to earn about $30 million — but it also cost $140 million to make. So the news is not great.

A consultant quoted in Variety’s piece characterized The Fall Guy’s opening weekend as “fair” and said it “is going to need a long run” in theaters to turn a profit. And maybe that’s what it will have; The Fall Guy is the sort of crowdpleaser that tends to hang around theaters for a while. (It got a very solid A- CinemaScore from paying customers last weekend.) I have no doubt that over time The Fall Guy will turn into one of those movies that everyone has seen and likes, and many people pretend they were fans of right from the start, even though they only caught it on streaming way after the fact.

READ MORE: Read Our Full Review of The Fall Guy

But The Fall Guy really shouldn’t need to desperately eke out a meager profit on the strength of its word-of-mouth. This isn’t some abstruse art film or an ambiguous exploration of the meaning of life; it’s a big, fun, funny, exciting, romantic action movie. It’s got sharp dialogue, strong chemistry between the stars (actual movie stars!), a fun mystery, magnetic lead performances, and terrific stunt work.

While The Fall Guy’s not perfect (and I personally would not have invested $140 million of my money in it), it is the sort of film I think you could take almost anyone to assured they would have at least a solidly good time. It’s almost the platonic ideal of what Hollywood executives describe as a “four-quadrant movie,” i.e. a film that should appeal to men and women over and under the age of 25. I could see my parents enjoying The Fall Guy, and if my kids were maybe two years older I would absolutely take them to see it too; it’s action-packed but not excessively bloody or violent. The sparks flying off the screen between Ryan Gosling and Emily Blunt could give electric shocks to the viewers in the theater’s first couple rows, but there’s not much profanity and barely any sexual innuendo.

So … what else do people want?

Anytime I meet someone new and they learn what I do for a living, I expect to hear one of two things: A request for a movie recommendation, or a question that’s really more of a complaint — something along the lines or “Why are there so many sequels?” or “When is Hollywood going to stop making superhero films?” or “Where are the movies for grownups?” or sometimes just “Why don’t they make movies like they used to?” (“Don’t shoot the messenger” is not a phrase that moviegoers tend to put a lot of stock in.)

That’s what I find so baffling — and even somewhat disheartening — about The Fall Guy’s struggles. Here you have exactly the sort of movie that people claim to want to see; the sort of thing they don’t make very often any more, with beautiful movie stars flirting and bantering and getting into all sorts of amusing scrapes. It’s not bleak or depressing. It doesn’t make you work too hard, but it also doesn’t insult your intelligence. It’s not a sequel or a reboot and it requires no homework; yes, The Fall Guy is loosely based on an old TV show, but you don’t need to know anything about it to enjoy the film. (I should know; I have never seen an episode of The Fall Guy in my life.)

It’s got zero superheroes; and it mostly exists to make fun of modern superhero movies and especially the puffed-up actors who think that because they play superheroes they are themselves bulletproof in real life. Ryan Gosling’s Colt Seavers, on the other hand, is anything but invulnerable. Over the course of the film, we watch as he gets dropped from enormous heights, rolls cars, and gets beaten up by countless bad guys. He sometimes fights back, but he’s not really trying to “beat” anybody; he’s just trying to survive.

I try not to get to wrapped up in the box office results of any movie. It’s a losing game, and it ultimately has nothing to do with my personal enjoyment of a film. A movie is a lot more than what it earned on its opening weekend. If a film breaks box-office records, that doesn’t make it good or bad; that just makes it successful. The opposite is true as well. Plenty of movies even better than The Fall Guy flopped much harder than it did in its opening weekend. In the end, a movie this entertaining will find an audience one way, or another. I

But for some reason, The Fall Guy failing to live up to experts’ already low expectations bummed me out a lot. This is not a “difficult” movie. This is what people tell me they want in a movie. And they didn’t go see it. If something like The Fall Guy can’t bring people out to the theater, what can?

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