In the movie business, it's always dangerous to say ''Things can't get any worse,'' because time often proves that even the grimmest pessimist is really being a Pollyanna. But as we near the halfway point of the 2010 moviegoing year, it seems fair to ask if maybe, just maybe, American studio movies have finally hit bottom. If you doubt it, flash back just one year, to June 30, 2009, when the midterm report card looked like this: Two eventual Best Picture nominees, Up and The Hurt Locker, were already in theaters. Two other summer movies, Star Trek and The Hangover, boasted excellent reviews, and giddy word of mouth was turning them both into blockbusters. The indie cartoon Coraline had achieved mainstream success and would eventually snag a Best Animated Feature nomination. And yet we were all groaning that the Academy had picked the wrong year to expand its field of Best Picture nominees to 10.
If only we'd known what a really bad year looked like. Let's jump back to the present, and try to fill in those slots. Yes, How to Train Your Dragon was a swift and enjoyable hit that will get that Coraline nomination next February. But other than that? Nothing. Number of potential Best Picture nominees to date: zero, unless we collectively agree to redefine ''best'' way downward. Number of summer popcorn movies that have exceeded expectations: also zero. Iron Man 2 is not as good as Iron Man. Robin Hood is not as good as other Robin Hoods. Shrek Forever After does not improve on any previous Shrek in a way that remotely justifies a massive 3-D ticket-price hike. Prince of Persia: The Abs of Jake is exactly as good as every other videogame adaptation ever, which is to say, not very. Killers and Marmaduke are not as good as staying home, even without air-conditioning. And Sex and the City 2 is not as good as the first Sex and the City; according to most critics, it is also not as good as being stabbed repeatedly in the ear with a hot fork. The kindest thing you can say about these movies is that they were creatively unnecessary; not one of them exists because the people behind them believed that they had a great story to tell.
Of all those films, it's Sex and the City 2 that has turned into the straw that broke the critic's back, inspiring so much reviewer rage that some websites have gleefully compiled collections of the most vicious broadsides. No doubt there's a little sexism here: In a more evenhanded world, we probably would have read less about the declining skin elasticity of the movie's four female costars and more about the fact that Robin Hood's Russell Crowe has gained at least half a Sarah Jessica Parker in girth since his late-'90s heyday.
But double standards aren't the main reason for the assault on this movie. In an industry now ruled by cartoons both literal and figurative, by films engineered to provide nothing but hyperstimulation and same-old-same-old visual spectacle, Sex and the City 2 counted as one of the few studio movies this summer that was supposed to be about actual humans. But SATC 2 transformed four once mildly likable characters into rancid, obliviously overentitled grotesques, and thus proved that the movies have now sunk so low that they can't even replicate decent TV. (Forget decent TV: They can't even replicate MacGruber.)
It's not a coincidence that this explosion of critical disgust and honestly, SATC 2 is paying for the sins of a multitude of bad movies that preceded it arrives right at the end of a TV season during which shows as varied in content, tone, and audience as Glee, Breaking Bad, Modern Family, Lost, Dexter, The Good Wife, and Mad Men gave viewers characters and plots worthy of spirited and enthusiastic discussion whether you liked them or not. Four or five years ago, it was a jaunty provocation to claim that ''TV is better than the movies'' (a phrase that headed articles in TIME, Newsweek, and EW). Today, it's just a fact. TV can be programmed for niche audiences; these days, studios only know how to spend too much money in order to lunge after too many eyeballs. TV actually tests its ideas before they air with pilots; studios just try to imagine what the poster will look like. Most significantly, TV can react quickly to a changing zeitgeist, whereas movies now take ridiculously long to respond to anything, if they even try. Not to pummel poor Sex and the City 2 again, but the economic crash happened 20 months ago. Was that really not enough time to realize that one way to make Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda, and Samantha interesting again would have been to downscale their vast disposable incomes and luxe lifestyles and show them struggling a little?
As TV has surged, the risk-averse souls atop the movie studios have stopped pretending that their job is anything other than to find and greenlight renewable, easily marketed franchises for undemanding audiences on big weekends. Making movies because you believe in the script, the director, the idea, the creative possibilities? That's 1970s nostalgia, if not rank sentimentality leave it to the indies.
This is the point in the argument when Hollywood apologists usually smack down pointyheads like me by saying ''Hey, we don't make movies for elitist media dweebs we make them for Joe Six-Pack, and the box office numbers don't lie!'' But here's where it gets interesting; this Memorial Day weekend was the lowest-grossing since 2001, and fewer tickets were sold than on any Memorial Day weekend in 17 years. That's right: The last time the American public was less interested in spending Memorial Day weekend at the movies, Bill Clinton and Hot Shots! Part Deux were just beginning their runs. And the following weekend was no better. If that qualifies as giving the people what they want, then Hollywood is either missing a big chunk of ''the people'' or misjudging the ''want.'' And at quite a price: According to boxofficemojo.com, the five top-grossing movies of Memorial Day weekend cost a combined $865 million, before marketing expenditures. Any studio chief who thinks that was a billion dollars well spent should look hard at those movies and ask if this is really the legacy he or she wants to leave.
The rest of this summer will certainly provide some big hits, because that's what summers do. And who knows? maybe we'll even see some really good mainstream films; perhaps some combination of Pixar, Christopher Nolan, vampires, Julia Roberts, 3-D, and Michael Cera will save the season. But a few clean wins aren't likely to change the fact that in 2010, the Hollywood studios and those who run them are behaving like irresponsible custodians of the great tradition of mainstream moviemaking. Their choices are lazy and defensive; their creative ambitions are hidden even from themselves; they look to marketers rather than filmmakers for inspiration; and their product just isn't very good. When the grosses go back up, all this will doubtless be airbrushed away like a starlet's worry line. But what if they stay bad? The result will be, at last, a crisis. Perhaps exactly the crisis Hollywood needs.