A quick look through the current box office charts reveals that one of the year's absolute worst films, Good Luck Chuck (125 screens), has grossed about $34 million. It's not exactly a blockbuster, but that's still a huge number of suckers who gave up their hard-earned cash in exchange for a ticket, thinking they were in for some entertainment. It's a hateful, stupid concept presented by two non-talented stars, who most likely got as far as they have based on their looks. On the other hand, one of the year's very best films, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (43 screens), has yet to earn even its first half-million; I'm not even sure most critics got the chance to see this amazing crime drama from veteran director Sidney Lumet. It features great performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman (what Oscar curse?), Ethan Hawke, Albert Finney and Marisa Tomei, and -- even more rare -- a great ending.
OK. So Before the Devil Knows You're Dead comes from a small studio, ThinkFilm, with a tiny advertising budget. I have yet to see a TV commercial or even a trailer or a poster. But Good Luck Chuck had weeks of buildup and advertising, and it opened on 2600 screens. Yet it also comes from a comparatively small studio, Lionsgate. It probably doesn't matter either way; these situations could have been completely reversed and Good Luck Chuck would still be the box office winner. It has always been like this. Experts have speculated that it's because most movies are packaged and aimed at male, juvenile audiences (the ones with the most disposable pocket change). Some have talked about the "blockbuster" era that sprung from the American Cinema Renaissance of the 1970s; starting in the early 1980s, profits became bigger and therefore more important than art.
Those things are correct to some extent, but the simple truth is that the masses make far different decisions than a single, rational human being does. In Men in Black (1997), Agent J asks why can't they reveal the existence of extra-terrestrials to the people of earth. "People are smart," he reasons. "They can handle it." Agent K responds: "A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals." Not enough study has been devoted to this mob mentality; for example, a person might not be capable of taking another human life. But in an angry lynch mob, there's barely a hesitation. That's an extreme example, of course, but it holds true for many aspects of life. It explains why so many people eat garbage at McDonalds rather than good food elsewhere (economics and availability are also a factor, but so is supply and demand; like I said, this is ripe for an in-depth study).
In any case, I'd like to show that it just takes a little time to sort the wheat from the chaff. Let's jump in the Wayback Machine and take a look at the year 1948 as an example. It was an uncommonly good year for film: Orson Welles released two films, Macbeth and The Lady from Shanghai, as did Howard Hawks (Red River and A Song Is Born), John Ford (Fort Apache and 3 Godfathers), Alfred Hitchcock (Rope and The Paradine Case), Anthony Mann (Raw Deal and He Walked by Night) and John Huston (Key Largo and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). Documentarian Robert Flaherty made the beautiful, lyrical Louisiana Story and the great Max Ophuls came to Hollywood with Letter from an Unknown Woman. The exceptional Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger gave us The Red Shoes. Italians Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti contributed with Neo-Realist films Germany Year Zero and La Terra Trema. And comedy genius Preston Sturges came out with Unfaithfully Yours.
On top of that, we had Frank Borzage's Moonrise, Fei Mu's Spring in a Small Town, William Dieterle's Portrait of Jennie, David Lean's Oliver Twist, Vincente Minnelli's The Pirate, films noirs like Andre de Toth's Pitfall, Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door, Laurence Olivier's shadowy Oscar-winner Hamlet, Abraham Polonsky's Force of Evil, Carol Reed's The Fallen Idol, Jacques Tourneur's Berlin Express. And, finally, for the ten-year old in everyone, there was Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. That's a pretty good batch of films, and anyone working on a year's ten best list had a plethora of good, raw material to work with. (My own list would go thusly: The Red Shoes, The Lady from Shanghai, Rope, Red River, Letter from an Unknown Woman, He Walked by Night, Louisiana Story, Jour de Fete, La Terra Trema and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
But here's the kicker. I happen to have that year's top 20 box office list (from a 1978 book called Reel Facts: The Movie Book of Records), and it goes like this, in order of gross: The Road to Rio, Easter Parade, Red River, The Three Musketeers, Johnny Belinda, Cass Timberlane, Billy Wilder's The Emperor Waltz, Gentleman's Agreement (the Oscar winner from the previous year), A Date with Judy, Captain from Castile, Homecoming, Sitting Pretty, The Paleface, State of the Union, My Wild Irish Rose, When My Baby Smiles at Me, Hamlet, Key Largo, On an Island with You and The Fuller Brush Man. I've never even heard of some of these, which suggests that, despite their massive popularity, they eventually fell out of the cultural zeitgeist. Anyone who saw Good Luck Chuck and worried over the state of movies in 2007 has nothing to fear. Things are virtually the same as they ever were.