“Reality ends here.” So reads an inscription in the cement outside the old quarters of the University of Southern California film school. But that might also become the epitaph for this year’s best-selling movies.
Unless the audience radically changes its behavior in the next few weeks, 2016 is poised to become the first year in which no film set in the real world placed in the top 10 at the domestic box office. At the moment, all 10 top-ranked films, led by Disney’s Finding Dory, with about $486 million in domestic sales, are pure fantasy. Four are animated: Dory, The Secret Life of Pets, The Jungle Book and Zootopia. Another five involve comic book heroes or anti-heroes: Captain America: Civil War, Deadpool, Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange. In 10th place, and still rising, is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, a J.K. Rowling film whose title speaks for itself.
That leaves the real-ish action thriller Jason Bourne in the No. 11 spot, as tallied by Boxofficemojo.com, with no hope of climbing, as it closed in October. Unless Patriots Day, from CBS Films and Lionsgate, turns into the next American Sniper — an eleventh-hour surprise that would defy the current box-office mood — or a Passengers, from Sony, or Hidden Figures, from Fox, finds some untapped well of viewer emotion, there’s virtually no chance that any comedy, drama or thriller set in anything that remotely resembles the universe we inhabit will join the top-ranked films.
Granted, our hold on reality sometimes has been tenuous. In 2010, the only top-ranked film with roots in the real was Christopher Nolan’s Inception, a sophisticated piece of science fiction that bordered on fantasy, yet somehow stayed within the realm of plausibility. Another iffy year was 2012, when only the Bond thriller Skyfall played in an entirely possible universe (unless you count Ted, with Mark Wahlberg’s teddy bear alter-ego).
But not until this year did the mass audience almost entirely abandon movies that reflect reality. Looking past Bourne, you won’t spot a naturalistic film ranked higher than Central Intelligence, a Dwayne Johnson-Kevin Hart spy spoof that is currently 17th or so in the charts. Sully, the best-ranked “serious” film so far, is probably No. 19 until Friday, when the animated Moana will take it down a notch.
It might be tempting to say that audiences simply are buying what the studios are selling — after all, the shift toward fantasy, which travels the world more easily than most reality-set films, has been visible since early in the last decade, when Harry Potter and the Marvel movies showed their strength. But it’s hard to blame the companies when screens remain crammed with non-fantasy films — Alliance, Hacksaw Ridge, Almost Christmas, The Accountant, Deepwater Horizon and such — that haven’t drawn big numbers.
The contentious presidential election probably took a toll. Even without the damaging rape charge controversy, The Birth of a Nation and its harsh portrayal of racial injustice probably were more than viewers already weary of political ferocity were ready to bear.
Women rallied to Bad Moms and the (half-fantasy) Ghostbusters but not in numbers matching Sex and the City, which ranked just outside the Top 10 in 2008 with about $153 million in ticket sales. (Quantum of Solace was the only non-fantasy to make the top rank that year, when, again, a contentious election might have pushed viewers toward the unreal.)
Even the faith audience, which pushed The Passion of the Christ into the top 10 in 2004, has gone soft. This year’s top faith-oriented film, Miracles From Heaven, probably will finish outside the Top 50, and both Ben-Hur and Queen of Katwe were a bust.
What this means, of course, is that those movies you could almost touch, the ones that reminded you of your knucklehead friends or made you want to fall in love or left you feeling bigger and braver than you usually are — The Hangover, The Blind Side, Gravity, The Martian, The Pursuit of Happyness, Wedding Crashers and such — will find the going a little tougher in post-2016 Hollywood. Because reality ended here.