Babylon, Damien Chazelle

Please, No More Hollywood Movies About Hollywood Movies

What is this growing trend of Hollywood movies being made about Hollywood movies? Is it narcissism? Lack of imagination?

One night last fall, I sat in a movie theater to see a film made by an old, film-obsessed filmmaker about a young film-obsessed filmmaker navigating adolescence on his way to becoming an old, film-obsessed filmmaker. Prior to the film, I sat through previews for three different films – two of which focused, in at least some part, on the magic of cinema and the complexity of its creators. 

Is this a case of hyper-targeted trailer placement, akin to seeing a bunch of action blockbuster trailers before a superhero movie? Or is this a cinematic trend that has recently experienced a head-scratching uptick?

Maybe it’s neither. Maybe it’s just this film school dropout’s bitter paranoia. Or maybe Hollywood’s self-love has reached unseemly new heights, and no one making the sausage is willing to acknowledge it.

Don’t get me wrong. I love movies. I love going to the movies. I have unyielding respect and appreciation for those who follow the vocation of filmmaking – from the camera grips on sets of the biggest blockbusters to the auteurs behind the most obscure indies and oddities. Filmmaking is a noble profession that has surely changed the lives of countless individuals worldwide, especially my own.

Yet in an ever-expanding world where new frontiers are being forged across just about every known culture, ideology, industry, and way of living or thinking – why are we still getting so many movies about how seemingly interesting the people that make movies are? As if Hollywood wasn’t considered enough of a self-obsessed orgy of incest – with a litany of annual award-giving-and-receiving proceedings, presentations, and pageantry in which the industry’s inherent narcissism can fester and swell – we’ve seemingly reached the pinnacle of films about films.

Hollywood Sign of the Times

The year 2022 brought no fewer than six film-centric films. By comparison, the equally oversaturated Marvel Studios machine churned out just three features in the same year.

Recent films-about-films include Damien Chazelle’s Babylon, Andrew Dominik’s BlondeSam Mendes’ Empire of LightSteven Spielberg’s The FablemansJordan Peele’s Nope, and Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – a list featuring everything from hard-hitting dramas to satirical romps and even commentary on the exploitive nature of the film industry.

The thing is – we’ve seen it all before.

The last dozen years have given us Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist (2011), Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), the Cohen Brothers’ Hail Caesar (2016), Damien Chazelle’s La La Land (2016), Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (2019) and David Fincher’s Mank (2020) – feauring two Best Picture Oscar winners and three Best Picture finalists. These are further proof that Hollywood’s Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences loves Hollywood movies about Hollywood.

That’s not to mention other middling showbiz-centric biopics like Sacha Gervasi’s Hitchcock (2012), John Lee Hancock’s Saving Mr. Banks (2013), Jay Roach’s Trumbo (2015), Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019), Craig Brewer’s Dolemite Is My Name (2019), Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos (2021), or the endless barrage of exceedingly formulaic music biopics.

Again – we’ve seen it all before.

Reinventing the Reel

With over a century of unceasing cinematic everything, we know that movies are magic. We know that creativity can save the world. And we know that show business is a fierce and fickle beast.

Hollywood has told us this in some form or fashion since the dawn of moving pictures. Earlier films such as William A. Wellman’s A Star Is Born (1937), Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950), and Stanley Donan and Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain (1952) said it all in ways that have been near impossible to top since, even with the continued evolution of the industry and its medium.

Simply put, Hollywood is doing itself no favors in trying to convince moviegoing audiences that it isn’t completely and hopelessly obsessed with itself by releasing (and subsequently awarding) so many Hollywood movies about Hollywood and the Hollywood people who make them. Yes, some of these films are truly transcendent pieces of art. But then, some are Babylon.

Chazelle’s 2022 showbiz opus is a sprawling, sparkly epic with laughs, tears, thrills, and chills, featuring an ensemble of some of today’s most charismatic and bankable stars, directed by a box office-friendly Academy Award-winning filmmaker. Yet, much like the silent film stars it showcases, Babylon’s days were numbered from the start. 

The three-plus-hour-long tinsel-town epic had so much to enjoy – including dynamic editing, a masterful score, and some heart-pounding spectacle – and yet just as much to not care about if not outright detest, like its inherent “more is better” approach, a total lack of subtlety and four different climaxes, with shockingly little originality along the way.

Projecting By Popular Demand?

Like most other art forms and media, cinema is an ever-evolving machine perpetuated by coming-and-going trends. From the great American western to the science-fiction epic, from the mid-budget adult drama (a near-extinct relic of the past) to the unceasing superhero tentpoles of today – genres and styles come and go. If millions of people pay to see a certain type of movie, you can expect to see that type of movie (and plenty of poor imitators) soon become a mainstay at your local theater.

But are people really lining up to consume Hollywood-centric cinema in such mass quantities?

According to Box Office Mojo’s ranking of the domestic box-office performance for all theatrically released films of 2022, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent was the 53rd highest-grossing film of the year, The Fabelmans came in at #67, Babylon at #82 (theatrically available for only the last ten days of the year, though still widely recognized as an underperformer) and Empire of Light at #166 out of 200 theatrical releases.

Only Nope – the film with conceivably the least to do with moviemaking directly from our aforementioned list (while also offering arguably the most to say of any of its peers) – makes the top 20 for 2022, coming in at #14. 

To be clear, I am not valuing or devaluing a film based on its box office performance alone – Kyle Balda’s Minions: The Rise of Gru (2022) claimed the #6 spot within the same list, after all. I’m asking why we’re seemingly getting an influx of a certain type of film when the genre doesn’t seem to draw audiences to the big screen en masse.

A Vicious Cinematic Cycle

An old creative adage persists within the screenwriting world (and in most writing 101 classes): “write what you know.” 

So if filmmakers feel compelled to creatively unpack their Hollywood origin stories, influences, and inspirations – I can understand that reasoning. Even at its most detached from reality, art is nothing if not the product of an artist’s personal experience or exposure (real or imagined) in some form or another.

So there’s certainly reason to believe that the film industry’s inescapable nature of self-admiration has become so potent that it is contaminating the “what you know” of its storytellers at an alarming rate. But with such middling-at-best box office returns, it’s worth asking if we’ve reached the point when “what you know” has failed to appease the appetites of moviegoing audiences. I think (and hope) that is the case. Because if the Hollywood movies about Hollywood movies of 2022 taught us anything, we know enough.

So what’s keeping the Hollywood-films-about-films trend alive? Maybe it’s the only way certain filmmakers can stay filmmakers – you know, keep lickin’ the boot and suckin’ the teat and whatnot. Or, maybe the industry’s grand tradition of patting itself on the back is the sole aspect of mainstream cinema magically immune to weakening returns. Then again, maybe it has less to do with the film industry and more with the current state of American culture in general, which has only grown increasingly insular. 

Whatever the reason – with the real threat of the endangered moviegoing experience going extinct, maybe Hollywood will start to turn its gaze toward the lesser-seen parts of the world and lesser-explored aspects of the human experience – or at the very least, to the parts of the country where most of its ticket-buying audiences live and yearn for something new.