Tarantino’s latest film may be described by viewers as a love letter to Tinseltown, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is less an ode than it is an obituary to an industry on the brink of transformation. The ninth and final film in his prolific film-directing career, Quentin Tarantino’s latest project is a bittersweet goodbye to an epoch that has been in decline for decades as the Times They Have A’Changed.
With retirement in sight, the iconic movie mogul admitted that, depending on its success in the box office, the film would mark the end of the road for his work in theatrical movies. If a flurry of feverish reviews and a $40m opening weekend in the US can be called success, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is the sunset farewell to a series of unforgettable films that will stand the test of time – a fate that the industry itself ironically may not enjoy.
Beyond celebrating classic cinema, this is a film that announces the slow death of a moment in culture that is already in midst-metamorphosis thanks to the changing tides of taste and technology. More than an urgent call to action about the future of cinema, it’s a snapshot of an era, a postcard of the golden age mounted in a gorgeous but often brutally honest frame.
At the heart of this 161-minute masterpiece is the emotionally-fragile Rick Dalton, a faded Hollywood heartthrob battling with mortality and the inevitable ebb of his acting career. Hesitant at the prospect of doing television, Dalton clings to the glory years gone-by and is visibly fearful for what the future brings.
The decision to cast Leonardo DiCaprio in this role (and Brad Pitt alongside him) wasn’t simply a move to make the Hollywood stars align, it was a conscious choice to have the cinema titans of our generation take a bow on behalf of the industry.
While the film business has long feared its own downfall in the face of threats presented from technological evolution, even the opening credits of this film give the sense that this time, it’s goodbye for good.
With theatre attendance waning and profits dwindling, disruption has hit the film industry hard – aside from Tarantino, crowds are only convinced to pay the ticket price for the blockbuster franchises that desperately cling to their custom as a means of keeping Hollywood’s heart beating. Give it ten years and you’ll likely be hard-pressed to find major studios spending multi-millions on a picture they know will succeed due to director recognition alone.
Instead, film-makers seeking sustainable career pathways are turning to platforms like Quibi – a start-up launched by the former DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg with the aim of giving directors a place to share quick bites of what they call “captivating entertainment, created for mobile by the best talent, designed to fit perfectly into any moment of your day.”
It’s a mission statement that perfectly reflects the new era; a signpost of the seismic shift in the way we consume media; an invitation to film directors to evolve alongside technological change lest they face extinction. After all, unless you’re Quentin Tarantino or Marvel, you have no standing upon which you can convince people to sit in a cinema screen for three hours. In other words, unless it features a Hollywood GOAT doing something hyper-violent in glorious technicolour or America's Ass kicking the butt of some hyper-powerful alien, ‘ain’t nobody got time for that.” (Okay, so Star Wars still brings the nerd-boys to the yard, but the point still stands.)
Oddly enough, it isn’t even a question of time more than it is commitment and attention. While viewers will happily lap up eight hours of back to back episodes of a TV series, the thought of sitting in the same seat watching the same movie without the opportunity to ‘veto’ and switch to something better is unsurprisingly off-putting to the generation of binge-watchers. This by no means should be taken as a slur on the audiences of today – if anything, it’s a wake-up call to those in the entertainment industry.
Just like video killed the radio star, the advent of streaming platforms and the rise of social media signals the curtain call for Hollywood as we once knew it. The numbers only aid to reinforce this theory: theatre attendance is now at a 25-year low, with revenues just sitting slightly above $10 billion or about what Amazon’s, Facebook’s, or Apple’s stock might move in a single day. Between 2007 and 2011, overall profits for the big-five movie studios—Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, Universal Pictures, and Disney—fell by 40 percent.
In the 90s and early 2000s, the idea of a bedroom decorated with dozens upon dozens of DVDs was a #LifeGoal of everyone who called themselves a movie buff. Today, the first thought upon entering such a room would be “you know you can stream most of these on Netflix, right?”
Just as customers eschew albums for streaming services like Spotify and hardcovers for Kindle eBooks, the concept of purchasing a film has fast become obsolete in the face of digitalisation; the cinema experience has become an activity that most people only fork out for if they know it will be truly worthwhile (i.e. Hobbs & Shaw – because a Fast & Furious movie is a guaranteed solid gold action packed thrill ride and I’ll fight anyone who disagrees).
A quick look at the data shows the story checks out: in 2015, the top films in theatres were illegally downloaded more than half a billion times. If it isn’t available on a streaming service or a film studio makes audiences wait weeks or months to release a movie that has already graced the cinema, they can expect to see more of the same behaviour from viewers whose attention spans are far too short to be patient.
For film directors, the biggest rivals have come in the form of Silicon Valley executives who have changed the expectations and perceptions of audiences across the developed world.
Once a site set up to connect old classmates, Facebook now waits in the wings of every major industry planning its strategic annexation of whatever it sets its sights on. Indescribable, indestructible and stopped by nothing, Facebook is effectively The Blob and there’s nothing that the Steve McQueen’s of this world can do to prevent it. Either they cry for the death of Hollywood or throw themselves onto the bandwagon before it leaves them behind.
With this in mind, it’s only a matter of time before movies will make their debut not on the big screen but on social media itself, and Facebook in particular. With a monthly active user count of 1.8 billion – that’s a quarter of the planet’s population – Facebook will have to find new ways to keep its stock attractive to investors once it runs out of new people it can convince to sign up.
As platforms like Quibi start to create competition, the internet giant will likely seize the opportunity to corner another market and turn the cinema-going experience into a virtual launch date in which audiences gather round their devices and enjoy ten minutes of the latest Hollywood release.
“Cinema is dead,” film director Nicolas Winding Refn recently declared, before adding, “and now it’s resurrected,” alluding to the lure of television and his own Amazon series, Too Old to Die Young.
“Film clings on to our feet as we move forward. The best way to move forward is to bury the past. That doesn’t mean you forget it.”
With that in mind, perhaps there’s no better way to say goodbye than to watch Leonardo DiCaprio wielding a flame-thrower to the tune of Vanilla Fudge’s You Keep Me Hangin’ On. The times may have changed, but we’re all still hanging on to the edge of our seats at the finale of a series, sitting through credits to see a secret scene and scowling at spoilers that ruin the fun we still get from film and television. The comforting reality is that there is no true-ending to the film industry, just a new beginning.