How Streaming Has Rewritten the Script for Movies

Chaos and uncertainty aren’t new in the movie business. The death of movies has been announced at least once a decade since the beginning of the sound era. The last golden age usually coincides with the adolescence and early adulthood of whoever is writing the obituary. Why don’t they make them like that any more? It’s not even a rhetorical question; it’s just a complaint.

Which brings us back to “Top Gun: Maverick,” which seemed to be an example of how they used to make them (at least when I was a kid), and succeeded according to an old-fashioned standard of measurement. A lot of people bought a lot of tickets.

One thing that has disappeared in the streaming age is a coherent criterion of success. The platforms are protective of their analytics: one thing nobody knows is how many viewers watched — or finished watching — a given movie. It’s even harder to determine how many new subscribers signed up for the purpose of watching that movie. The point of the subscription model, in any case, is to provide inexhaustible algorithmic abundance, a deep and diverse reservoir of content at everyone’s fingertips. The traditional goal was to launch a blockbuster that everyone wanted to see. Now, as long as everyone is watching something, the algorithm will be satisfied.

This means that the reasons for watching have changed. In the old days of the studio system — and even after, into the ’70s and ’80s — an annual poll of exhibitors produced a list of stars ranked in order of box office clout. The methods weren’t entirely scientific, and competing lists appeared (notably in Variety), but the idea was that star power could be quantified. The three major tabulators of data agreed, for example, that in 1946 Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman were the king and queen of the box office.

Popular performers like Crosby and Bergman — and exhibitor poll mainstays like Abbot and Costello, Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Bob Hope — were said to “open” a movie, to bring in crowds who might not know anything about the picture other than who was in it. Not that these stars, in the era of studio power, were shakers and movers in the system. They were its products. The studios gave them new names and endowed them with carefully constructed personas. Marion Morrison was renamed John Wayne. Constance Ockelman turned into Veronica Lake, and Norma Jean Baker into Marilyn Monroe. Humphrey Bogart, a wealthy doctor’s son who had been thrown out of Phillips Academy, became Humphrey Bogart, hard-boiled cynic and all-around tough guy.

After World War II, stars won more freedom to choose their projects and profit from them, and their cultural cachet grew along with their perceived box office clout. Movie stardom became a global phenomenon, and new styles of acting conquered Hollywood. To some extent, the rise of the Method — associated with new stars like Marlon Brando, Paul Newman, Natalie Wood and Monroe herself — replaced artifice with authenticity, but the glamour of stars hardly faded. In spite of competition from television, from professional sports, and from rock ’n’ roll, movies remained at the summit of mass culture, and movie stardom established the gold standard of modern celebrity.