WHY AREN’T HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRANGE ANYMORE?

At the Fantasia Film Festival in 2016, before a screening of the punk video art black comedy She’s Allergic to Cats, I recall programmer Mitch Davis declaring that “weird is hot” in the then-current climate. Having run 366 Weird Movies for 8 years at the time, I was skeptical. Sure, scrappy filmmakers managed to squeeze out a handful of weird movies every year, but I consistently had trouble identifying ten truly weird ones for our year-end lists. Were things about to change for the strange?

Later that night, I asked underground director for his opinion on whether weird movies were “hot.” He said that when he described his work, most people happily responded “‘I’m OK with weird movies,’ but then you show them the weird movie and they’re like ‘ahhh… I didn’t get anything,’ and they’re completely confused and they hate the thing, and I’m like, ‘Ah, I knew it.’”

Still from She's Allergic to Cats (2016)
She’s Allergic to Cats (2016)

The next day I asked Allergic to Cats auteurs and if they thought weird movies were “hot.” They said the concepts they pitched for music videos for local L.A. bands were always rejected for being “too weird.” Reich said things started to change around the time Tim and Eric became popular, but they still had issues. Pitching a webseries, potential producers told them to make it more mainstream; then, they complained it wasn’t weird enough. “We were so outraged, we’d never been accused of not being weird before,” Pinkney laughed.

The point being, I—and the people working on the ground producing weird videos—are always skeptical when outsiders and marketers proclaim that out-of-the-ordinary is currently in demand. Have things changed in the movie industry in the six years since I last asked these questions in 2016? Variety‘s chief film critic Peter Debruge thinks the answer is “yes,” and he wrote a column titled “Why Are Indie Films So Strange Now?” to that effect. But, while Debruge’s observations are optimistic, I think his conclusions don’t match specialists’ expectations for what a true revival of the weird would look like.

To give credit where credit is due, Debruge applauds this “trend,” praising “unapologetically odd and original creations, led by a gifted group of rebel auteurs who don’t kowtow to popular expectations” and suggesting that there is a viewing “appetite [that] in turn supports an indie-film environment where directors are motivated to be more original, more surprising and all around more creative.” So far, so good. But is this really much different than the situation in previous decades? We here at 366 are not noticing a greater concentration of strange films than in prior years. Our own survey of Canonically Weird films by year found that weird movie production peaked between about 1968-1971. 2006, which was just outside the decade-long  weird movie renaissance Debruge postulates, was also a good year for strange films, and there were some notable peaks in the early 1990s as well (thanks to the temporary popular success of ). But while the number of weird movies ebbs and flows year by year, based on our curation, it’s hard to come to the conclusion that we are currently in a major bull market for weird movies. (And you must add to this analysis the fact that the number of feature films being produced increases every year, so naturally more weird films appear, as well.)

Still from Titane (2021)
Titane (2021)

The movies that Debruge’s article highlights as indicative of the purported trend aren’t always that outre, either. A lot of them are only strange by comparison to extended universe tent-poles and Oscar bait dramas. We’ll grant Debruge the following—Spring Breakers (2012), Under the Skin (2013), The Lobster (2015), Swiss Army Man (2016), The Beach Bum (2019), The Lighthouse (2019), and Titane (2021)—as genuine examples of breakout weird movies. But that’s only seven films in ten years. Just quickly picking  a random seven from the previous decade, 2002 to 2011, gives us Adaptation. (2002), Sin City (2005), My Winnipeg (2007), Bronson (2008), Synecdoche, New York (2008)Antichrist (2009), and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010)—a comparable slate, and one that even includes an Oscar winner.  Other pictures Debruge highlights are only marginally weird, mainly art horror films like Midsommar (2019); and even more are just barely offbeat fare like The Florida Project, Promising Young Woman, Parasite, Moonlight, Zola, Pig, and Uncut Gems. Good films, all, but movies that only your unmarried aunt who lives with her five cats, or a Sony Pictures executive, would find anywhere in the vicinity of “bizarre.”

The insight Debruge brings to light—the true subject and substance of his article—is how a few mid-range studios (A24 and Neon, in particular) have stepped in to fund controversial, provocative and just plain strange mid-budget films that, in past decades, Hollywood would have taken a chance on. What Debruge really identifies is the fact that certain brave and opportunistic companies have swooped in to specialize (or at least partially specialize) in what he terms “bizart films.” And this is definitely a welcome trend… although it is equally an unwelcome trend, because these companies are only stepping into a space that Hollywood studios have vacated. It was not that long ago that major studios were willing to take chances on movies like Dark City (1998), Fight Club (1999), or Mulholland Drive (2001). But one financial flop like mother! (2017) can scare executives off for a long time. Even specialty sub-studios like Fox Searchlight—who distributed odd classics like Black Swan, The Tree of Life, and Beasts of the Southern Wild between 2010 and 2012—have recently left the weirdest movies to the indies. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, A24 was founded in 2012.

The other major development Debruge hints at—one that doesn’t relate to the actual quantity of weird films being released—is the positive reception that today’s “bizart” indie films are getting from critics and awards-granting guilds. The idea that Titane could win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the same festival that was so outraged by ‘s Crash that they created a new category just to shuttle such offerings away from competition along “serious” fare—does seem to mark a sea change in critical appreciation.

So are we in a new golden age of “bizart” film? We at 366 say no; we’ve been in business for fourteen years now, and we think the weird audience remains the same marginalized group it’s always been. Weird isn’t “in” now: the marginal number of strange films we get each year have just shifted production from the majors to the indies. It doesn’t identify a new trend,  but as an encomium for A24 and Neon—and smaller players like Wild Bunch, IFC and others—Debruge’s article is right on target.

May these fine folks continue giving us what we need to fill our hearts and souls with cinema magic—the weird and wonderful, on a scale that only films with actual movie budgets can achieve. Meanwhile, there is still plenty of room to grow. Hollywood, you’re welcome to grow some balls and come back to the bizarre anytime you like. We the weird will be here, in the shadows, waiting, dollars clutched in our hands.

2 thoughts on “WHY AREN’T HOLLYWOOD FILMS STRANGE ANYMORE?”

  1. Nice article. I agree with the assessments. I think we’re seeing a generation of filmmakers who now consider canon, films that were previously just seen as fringe… The mainstream success (Oscar nominations and successes) of a director like Yorgos Lanthimos would have been unthinkable I think, even in the 90s. I think the internet has made weird more accessible and it’s an ever-needed contrast against ‘normal’ that is only a google search away. I’m sure lots of views of weirdness these days are in YouTube clips and reaction videos. Anyway, I’m rambling and my dinner is ready. Keep up the fantastic work. Sometimes the internet depresses me, but I can always rely on this site to bring me weird joy. Thank you.

  2. I agree with this concise article. The ubiquity of weird films isn’t so much a current trend as a result of a change in distribution. The mainstream seems to be more fluid than ever. Luckily readers of this site continue to maintain robust palates.

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