Posted September 15, 2009 by William Dunmyer in Feature Article

Is Serious Cinema Dying in America?

From where I sit (Manhattan, late summer 2009), it looks to me like serious cinema is dying in America. High-quality, challenging films still get made in this country, but almost no one goes to see them. Week after week, wonderful films get released and Americans completely ignore them, even those who live in cities.

“The Hurt Locker” is a recent example. This film generated a lot of buzz on the festival circuit for over a year and then was released in June in select cities to a torrent of great publicity. Almost every critic praised it as a near-masterpiece. How did American audiences react? They couldn’t have cared less. Almost no one showed up at theaters. Even in New York, interest was nil. When I read the film’s tremendous press coverage, I just presumed my fellow New Yorkers were reading it as well. Not so! New Yorkers have slipped right into the national pattern of tuning out serious cinema.

It is true that “Hurt Locker” was released in the summer, and audiences at that time of year tend to have only popcorn entertainment on their minds. But this was not the reason the film was tuned out. Even when serious films are released at other times of year, they attract no attention from audiences. Ignoring serious film is a year-round phenomenon in America today. Below is my list of the most under-rated films of 2008, almost none of which were released in the summer:

– Mister Lonely
– Snow Angels
– The Visitor
– Stop-Loss
– Reprise
– Yella
– Chansons d’Amour
– The Edge of Heaven
– Let the Right One In
– Synecdoche, New York
– Ballast
– Revolutionary Road
– Elegy
– Frozen River
– W
– Body of Lies
– The Wackness
– Hounddog
– Savage Grace

Here is an even longer list of high-quality, unwatched films from 2007:

– I’m Not There
– Rendition
– Gone Baby Gone
– Fierce People
– Breaking and Entering
– Black Snake Moan
– The Lookout
– Alice Neel
– The Nines
– Grace is Gone
– The Savages
– Syndromes and a Century
– Margot at the Wedding
– Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead
– Lars and the Real Girl
– In the Valley of Elah
– The Assassination of Jesse James
– Into the Wild
– 3:10 to Yuma
– Broken English
– Sunshine
– First Snow

Please note also that the problem precedes the Great Recession of 2008. One might be tempted to explain the commercial failure of serious films to the precarious economic times. But the tuning out of cinema started long before the Great Recession. It is a fundamental part of the zeitgeist of the aughties (my term for the first decade of the century) — and there is no simple explanation.

While serious films are attracting no attention from moviegoers, interest in popcorn movies is at an all-time high. Shallow, formulaic entertainment is more popular than ever. The bigger and dumber, the better. It’s not that Americans have lost interest in movies per se. They’ve lost interest only in intelligent, challenging movies. The more intelligent a film is, the less popular it is, even among well-educated, urbane Americans.

It has been especially distressing to watch New Yorkers align themselves with this national pattern. When even Manhattanites turn their backs on serious film, you know that the art form is in grave trouble. Especially despicable is how New Yorkers deny responsibility for their actions. They like to say that there are no films worth paying attention to now. If there were good films produced, they’d go see them, they say. When you respond by listing the myriad high-quality films in the last few years that no one went to see, they are rendered mute.

One friend of mine recently claimed that there was no hope of our seeing a movie together because film choices today were so “abysmal.” I immediately named five films in current release that were very good and five more that I was eager to see. He was dumbstruck. He’d so completely tuned out cinema that he hadn’t heard of the 10 films I named. But of course he was able to name every popcorn movie showing at the multiplexes.

New Yorkers and other city folk have somehow gotten the idea that there are no good films being made today, which is patently false. They can’t have concluded this based on knowledge, so perhaps it is wrong to describe it as an “idea.” Prejudice is more accurate. For some reason they want to believe that there are no good films today, and they assertively ignore anything that might throw this belief into question. Perhaps the work it takes to keep up with an art form was proving too taxing? If cinema is no longer worth following, then you can save a lot of time by simply ignoring it. Is plain old laziness one of the roots of this tuning out of cinema?

There might also be a touch of conformism involved, the desire to be in tune with the national zeitgeist. Clearly the American pattern is toward escapism and mindless fun in the early 21st century. Do city people simply want to jump on this bandwagon? Going against the grain takes courage. I smell a bit of cowardice and conformism whenever I meet a supposed cinephile who ignores contemporary film.

Nostalgia may also be at work, the idea that almost everything artistically valuable is in the past. The scary thing is that this nostalgia-sickness has the power to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If people believe it hard enough, it will come true. If audiences ignore all the meaty, unique films that are produced, then eventually such films will cease to be made. Simple economics will do them in. We’re not there yet, but we appear to be moving squarely in that direction. If cinema does die in America, it will be the fault of audiences not filmmakers.

The big question: Is this tuning out of cinema distinctive only to the aughties, or will it become a deep pattern of the 21st century as a whole? Will serious cinema revive in the second decade of the century, or will it disappear? My feeling is that America could go either way. It all depends on audiences.


Before I continue, the question of subjectivity must be addressed. What I call great is not necessarily great for someone else, of course. Intelligent people have divergent opinions about art all the time. So if artistic viewpoints are subjective, then how could I be angry about someone’s saying that all films today are junk? If someone has seen most of the serious films of the last few years and assessed them as rubbish, then that’s fine. It’s hard for me to understand how that could happen, but I would have to respect the person’s view. But the people I’m talking about have not seen the films. The great tuning out of cinema that is happening today is not based on knowledge of contemporary film. It’s based on a nearly complete ignorance of it.

I recently discussed with someone the state of film acting today. I said that I considered Justin Timberlake one of the big new talents on the horizon (based on his work in “Black Snake Moan” and “Southland Tales,” two fascinating recent films that no one went to see). My interlocutor, a young male, scoffed violently and pompously. How could I take Timberlake seriously as an actor? he asked. When I dug a little deeper, it turned out this man had never seen Timberlake’s acting. He had a firm viewpoint based on no information. This is the kind of ignorant prejudice I’m seeing in America when it comes to 21st-century film.


If you love cinema, there are things you could do to improve its chances of survival. I feel I must lay out some suggestions even though it will sound didactic. Cinema-going has so fallen out of American culture that some coaching and reminders might be needed. First and foremost, you must go to see more serious films.

Pick up The New York Times on Fridays (available in almost every Starbucks nationwide), where you will get all the information you need about current cinema. Compare that to your local listings and see what’s available to you. Films don’t stay in theaters very long anymore, so you must be fleet on your feet.

Push yourself to see a non-popcorn movie every two weeks or so. Resist the overwhelming tendency of our times, which is for grown-ups to stay home. If you like quiet theaters, the best time to go is Monday-Wednesday evenings or early in the day on weekends. And don’t be afraid to go alone. Cinephiles frequently go alone to the movies. This is not because we have no friends! It’s because everyone is very busy, and it’s too difficult to find a date for every movie outing. When you have some free time, jump on the opportunity. When I wake up on a Saturday morning feeling especially energetic, I often zip out to sneak in a screening before the rest of the city has gotten moving. It’s a great way to start the day, and early matinees are sometimes half-price.

If you’re in the suburbs, remember that most suburban counties have one or two arthouse theaters. You must make the extra effort to patronize those establishments. Also, make trips into the city as often as possible to visit the arthouses there. Suburbanites play as important a role as city folks, but they often don’t realize this.

I would also strongly recommend that you stop trusting reviewers. This remains a big problem in America. Just because one critic dislikes a film does not at all mean you will. Several years ago, I stopped trusting critics, and it was the single greatest improvement in my artistic life. Critics no longer lead me around by the nose. My own nose guides me. I started seeing any film that intrigued me, reviews be damned. Over and over, I found myself disagreeing with the dominant view among critics. How liberating it was to remove the middle-man and establish my own relationship with cinema. It was my own little Protestant Reformation, ceasing to put the critic-popes between me and God. I’ve lost count of the number of times I fell in love with a film that had gotten mostly bad or mediocre reviews. It happens all the time.

Initially I was quite shaken by my loss of faith in reviewers. I had always thought critics’ views were more legitimate than mine. I had also believed that meritocracy basically worked. I thought that high-quality works of art would almost always succeed in the marketplace. If a film failed, it was because it was mediocre. How naïve! Now I see that innumerable great works of art go unnoticed. It’s really a crap shoot. Sometimes great films find an audience, but more often they do not.

I do look at reviews, but only because I am interested in monitoring the reception of films. It has no impact on my choices of what to see. Sometimes reviews might push me to see a film sooner than later, if it is receiving a tidal wave of stellar notices. But I make my own moviegoing choices by and large. I am not even scared away by feeding frenzies, when critics tear apart a film like ravenous sharks. Whenever critics gang up on a film, saying that it is one of the worst of all time, I actually tend to get more intrigued by the film rather than less. Art that produces venom from average critics usually has something brave and counter-cultural about it. The most audacious works of art, ones that radically break with established forms, usually are received poorly at first. Feeding frenzies also mean a film will be pulled quickly from theaters. So if one wants to see it for oneself, one must rush. This happened recently with Madonna’s directorial debut, “Filth and Wisdom,” which was so savaged by critics that it was pulled from theaters in one week. I never made it in time, so now I must rent it if and when it becomes available on DVD.

A legendary example of this is Michael Cimino’s “Heaven’s Gate,” the most derided film of its time (1980). Negativity from critics was so violent that I still remember it, even though I was only 16 years old at the time. The film disappeared quickly, and Cimino’s career was over. But the film is now being rediscovered by a new generation, many of whom are describing it as a lost near-masterpiece. Let that be a lesson to all of us: Always take reviews with a grain of salt, especially when they are thick with invective and hyperbole. Develop your own critical viewpoint, and never be afraid to go against the grain.

Trust in your own artistic vision. If you lack confidence, it’s probably because you haven’t studied art in a systematic way. You don’t have to take night classes. Read as much serious film criticism as you can, which will probably give you all the training you need. But even during this learning period, believe in your own pleasure impulses. If you enjoy a film, proclaim that proudly. Your own pleasure should always be your artistic touchstone. Just try to get conscious about what it is that is triggering pleasure for you, and compare that to what your favorite critics say about their own delights. This is how you will learn and continue to deepen your artistic sensibility.

Consider this article a manifesto for American cinephiles. The zeitgeist right now, at least in America, is strongly against us. Many former cinephiles have turned away from serious film, but let’s not be bitter about their betrayal. Let them glut on TV shows and popcorn movies if that works for them. But let’s also not grow despondent. We’re a very small community now. But if each of us redoubles his or her efforts by seeing more serious films than ever before, we can make up for the loss of this betrayal overnight. The stakes are high. With no exaggeration, the survival of American cinema in the 21st century is in our hands. Let’s see what we can accomplish!

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.