Features and Columns · Movies

Going to the Movies Post Election

By  · Published on November 14th, 2016

Box office is up, but are people buying the right tickets?

This weekend’s top movies at the box office included a story of a woman who leads Americans, has all the best ideas, and tries to make peace with strangers who seem scarier than they are. Another involves the ability to turn back time and fix what has been destroyed. It’s no wonder that people flocked to see Arrival ($24m) and Doctor Strange ($43m) after Hillary Clinton lost the US presidential election.

But it’s also not surprising that many other moviegoers went to something called Trolls ($35m), in which creatures dispel seemingly glorious things out of their asses. It surely wasn’t all depressed Democrats at the multiplex. The surprisingly high attendance is being credited to the result of Tuesdays vote, though, and the idea that many upset about Trump being the president-elect needed an escape through sci-fi, fantasy, and comedy releases.

We tend to see increases in moviegoing during hard times, albeit more often in economic downturns than moments of mourning or after tragedies, which is the extreme comparison for Americans on the left. Arrival did much better than Paramount expected, which was low- to mid-teens. And Doctor Strange had the lowest-percentage drop for a Marvel movie in its second weekend since Thor in 2011. Iron Man is the only other MCU release with better legs.

And attendance was strong pretty much all down the line, with box office reportedly being up 50 percent overall. The new comedy Almost Christmas ($15m) also slightly exceeded projections, while in limited release Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk ($114k) and Paul Verhoeven’s Elle ($51k) are touted as being successes – however, the latter’s $25k theater average on two screens (compared to Billy’s $57k average) is also said to be only “OK.”

Gregory Ellwood claims that Elle could have done better but its release came at a bad time, when much of its audience in the two cities it opened in are “preoccupied with other things.” That could mean coping with the election results in different ways, maybe even with entertainment options that are more passively escapist. Or maybe he means the arthouse crowd was being more active, such as through protesting.

The question that needs to be asked of disappointed Democrats going to the movies for respite is this: are they going to the right movies? Should they be escaping? Or fighting? In a Filmmaker magazine column from last week, Dan Schoenbrun makes the suggestion that all movies are political, and that the people making them have a responsibility to not just “placate or titillate” or “provide empty hope and happy endings and cacophonic fight scenes.”

Indiewire has extended the discussion to the responsibility of film critics (with my own contribution to their poll included), and I think we should also loop in the audience. In general, spending and consuming is political, and what we support in that is a political act. If Americans respond to an election disappointment by escaping and trying to ignore it, even briefly, that can appear as a political act of indifference or despair.

I joked in the opening paragraph with a forced relevance, but it’s actually unlikely anyone went to this weekend’s top movies with politics in mind for their choices of Hollywood sci-fi and fantasy fare. Probably not even the decision to support a comedy like Almost Christmas, which is written and directed by an African-American filmmaker and features a mostly black cast, was anymore politically motivated than is normal with the sort.

Did any of the anti-Trump crowd follow up the election by watching documentaries? Did they download Michael Moore’s TrumpLand and stream Ava DuVernay’s 13th with the attitude that it’s better to be too late than never in order to drive a momentum of anger upward? It seems the election is making a lot of Americans realize their past shortcomings as political people, trying to make up for it by taking to the streets or being more vocal on social media. Is it also in their mindset about pop culture?

That doesn’t have to be about watching more docs than fluff or strictly seeing entertainment that promotes things like inclusion and empathy, such as Moonlight ($1m). There is a call for liberals to get out of their bubble and pay more attention to the lives and culture of Middle America. That doesn’t mean seeing charged propaganda like Hillary’s America or enjoying Duck Dynasty, but familiarity with conservative favorites is helpful.

Your Happy Place Movie

None of this is a call for anyone to stop enjoying their mindless go-tos for comfort when it’s needed. People should keep watching their soapy reality shows and dumb comedies and superhero junk all they want, especially as relief from daily personal struggles. But it makes sense not to limit oneself to escapism too much if serious political outcomes are being felt. Holding onto a shield without brandishing your sword only gets you so far.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.