It wasn’t the big-budget bullishness of Christopher Nolan that lured understandably wary audiences back to the multiplex after Covid struck. The director tried harder than most to be Hollywood’s head cheerleader for the cinema experience, insisting his sleek thriller Tenet be seen on the big screen and the big screen only back in the cursed days of 2020, but it was too much and too soon, and ultimately his film was too bad for it to work too well.
The film was by no means a flop, but it was a concerning under-performer, caveats and all, and it wasn’t until the following March that we found out what it took to truly lead the masses from their couch. Rather than style or sophistication, as Nolan had offered, it was the primal appeal of watching a giant ape fighting a giant lizard that roused crowds into a grand return, Godzilla vs Kong winning the title of first legitimate hit of the pandemic. Various hits have followed, most of them involving superheroes, but the film’s early global popularity remains telling. We knew audiences would rush back in droves for whatever guff had the Marvel logo attached, but it was a sign that there was another type of spectacle being craved.
There have been loosely defined examples of the B-movie – a historically low-budget, high-kitsch sideshow to the more substantive main feature – making big money ever since the system shifted to a model that didn’t need them as literally. But as Hollywood has still reckoned with a more discerning audience more easily swayed by what’s showing on the small rather than big screen and a pile of flops that’s been getting higher and higher, B-movies have been turning preposterousness into profit.
Last year closed out with David Harbour’s gory drunk-Santa-takes-down-criminals comedy Violent Night surprising with $75m worldwide before January gave us yassified evil doll horror M3gan turning Twitter virality into real world success with a massive $172m globally, Gerard Butler’s plane movie called Plane surpassing low financial expectations (a sequel called Ship is now in development) and even micro-budget slasher Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey make a killing on a tiny release. As Elizabeth Banks sees her self-explanatory Cocaine Bear also manage to monetise memes with over $50m in two weeks, this Friday sees Adam Driver hope for the same as he accidentally travels back to the prehistoric age in dinosaur thriller 65.
What links these films is a certain you-gotta-see-this freak-show quality that has transformed them from minor calendar releases into major audience events, knowingly courting those who might be stumbling in after one too many, standards considerably lower. The period that comes after the glut of high-minded Oscar movies have come out is never a particularly serious one, but it’s never been quite as silly as this – or quite as successful. This most recent Oscar season has been a box-office bloodbath with best picture nominees such as The Fabelmans, Women Talking, The Banshees of Inisherin, Triangle of Sadness and Tár all underperforming and leading many to hand-wring over what the industry might look like outside of tentpole franchises.
Horror has been a reliable constant – last year saw Smile turn a $17m budget into a massive $217m worldwide – because it’s cheap to make, less reliant on star power and provides audiences with a communal experience that can’t be replicated at home. The surprise success of last September’s Barbarian (along with the following month’s shock box-office haul of killer clown horror Terrifier 2) was also a win for B-movies, taking the kind of progressively nuttier plot that would traditionally be relegated to a horror streamer like Shudder and transplanting it to the big screen, a test for just how wild mainstream films can get without alienating the masses. Its revolting reveals inspired audible audience interaction while also setting Twitter abuzz, both on release and when it landed on HBO Max soon after.
A social media stranglehold has been vital for these B-movies to prosper, following on from the groundwork laid by showrunners like Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes, who were instrumental in the Twitter-ing of television, updating the water-cooler moment into something more gif-able. With both of them now mostly subsumed within the Netflix algorithm, this might be a thing of the past, but in their prime, they turned shows like American Horror Story (in its prime) and Scandal into hashtagged events, every reaction and moment instantly becoming a meme (at her peak, Rhimes turned Thursday night into #TGIT, AKA Thank God it’s Thursday). With the popularity of live television ever dwindling, there remains an untapped desire for a communal viewing experience, to be a part of something and to be seen as such, and the opening weekends of films like M3gan, Cocaine Bear and Barbarian allowed for something similar, inspiring extreme reactions and extreme creativity (M3gan’s popularity was also heightened by the film’s huge TikTok presence).
The increased gonzo nature of these movies is also in part a response to how Hollywood has taken genres and plots that would be traditionally told within the exploitation realm and tidied them up for a wider audience. The continued dominance of fantasy and superhero narratives has meant that something that would have once been thrown together on a shoestring and positioned as a midnight movie is now part of a larger, higher-stakes machine. A telling comparison is Captain America, adapted first as a junky film back in 1990 for $3m and dumped on video, before later being made for $140m in 2011 and released on over 3,700 screens. The reaction by some has been to double down and level up to compete.
The bloat of TV, which allowed for a record 599 scripted shows to air in the US in 2022, has also provided consumers with an unprecedented and intimidating host of options that don’t require them to leave their living room. Showrunners have tried to tackle all available genres from comedy to horror to action, but B-movies succeed in ways that small screen versions wouldn’t. The films are usually around the 90-minute mark, filled with characters who are more pawns than people and reliant on plots that don’t benefit from the analysis that long-form television would invite (Cocaine Bear for 10 hours would allow for both high and comedown). They also demand that in-person, shout-at-the-screen level of participation that just doesn’t quite work at home.
It’s not that these films haven’t been consistently made ever since the term B-movie became less industry definition and more loose descriptor, it’s just that they’ve not always been quite as popular at a time when so many other films are struggling. Snakes on a Plane, seen as one of the first films to become a viral hit before it was even released, was a box-office dud on release back in 2006 leading to the term “Snakes on a Plane effect” being used when internet fandom – read ridicule – for Jared Leto’s Morbius also didn’t lead to a frenzy of ticket sales. It doesn’t always work, and may not with this week’s 65, a film currently tracking poorly despite an effectively fun trailer and magnetically goofy premise. If it flops then it’s also because, unlike the recent B-movies that came before, it carries a risky reported A-budget of $91m, changing the stakes considerably (M3gan’s box office is that much more of a result given that it cost just $12m to make).
While the pandemic might not be the big preventer it once was in getting audiences back in seats, its effect on what, how and when we consume will probably forever linger. Whether absurdist escapism will always sell quite this well, at a time of such unrelenting grimness worldwide, is unknowable, but let’s hope the future doesn’t demand that we need it quite this much.