As 2016 begins, we are about a year removed from Mark Harris’ damning pronouncement, in his article “The Birdcage” published in Grantland, that “franchises are not a big part of the movie business. They are not the biggest part of the movie business. They are the movie business. Period.” In the same piece he previewed Hollywood’s upcoming five-year slate and wrote, “If movies have, for a century, been the repository of our dreams, and every generation gets the dreams it deserves, then ours is Rodin’s The Thinker reimagined as a superhero poised on the edge of the crapper, and the rest of us poised on the edge of … well, it may be a little extreme to invoke the abyss. But we’re on the edge of something, and the something is big and dark and annihilating.” And yet, reading recent wrap-ups of 2015’s slate of films fails to communicate impending or ongoing doom. What happened in 2015? Was Harris right, or not?

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Perhaps I should mention that in my little world, when Harris talks, people listen. Harris is both the most erudite of the major mainstream critics and a powerhouse in academia (his carefully researched books have won several notable academic awards). Beyond that, my friend who is a show runner for FX claims that “everyone reads everything,” pointedly including writers like Harris. In the twelve months since his scathing diagnosis of the film industry appeared, it’s been quoted by just about every major critic…though, curiously, not in the last month or so.

Yesterday, for example, The New York Times took it upon itself to ask its two leading critics to summarize 2015. In “The Year the Studios Got It Right”, A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis – you can bet the budget of Avatar 2 and 3 that they have read Harris’ piece – didn’t sound overly worried about the industry. Neither of them mentioned a superhero movie. Scott wrote calmly, “This year there were, as ever, some very worthy middle-size movies, some of which took chances with narrative form and cinematic technique.” And: “Popularity is not the same as quality, of course, but 2015 was a year when a lot of the best cinematic art could be found at the multiplex, amid the sequels and blockbusters.”

For her part, Dargis refused to upbraid the franchise-makers while instead upbraiding the “white elephant”-loving Oscar voters, claiming that in 2015, “some of the most memorable movies were rowdy, big-studio release [sic] that were out to grab truckloads of cash and ended up speaking to the mass audience (critics too) more than many tastefully correct awards hopefuls with their impeccable technique and Important subjects. The movies and times are changing — will Oscar?”

Have Scott and Dargis been drinking the franchise Kool-Aid? Have the many critics re-tweeting Scott and Dargis been welcoming our alien overlords? Was Harris’ jeremiad never all that alarmist in the first place? Were the movies better this year for some reason? Was this year simply an outlier in Harris’ otherwise properly judged sequhellscape, or will a latter-day Harris look back and say he overreacted at the end of a particularly disheartening year?

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: The “Oscar Industrial Complex” – as Dargis called it yesterday – is the tail wagging the movie-industry dog. In other words, although Oscar-designed movies (think The Imitation Game or Birdman) represent a tiny fraction of the studios’ total budget in a given year, studios still rely on them to attract talent and, as importantly, viewers. Affluent people tend to have money, so Universal releases Steve Jobs partly because the DVD/streaming extras can push lower-brow studio products. Another way of putting this is that movies still need to be good, and sometimes original. You’d barely know this from Harris’ piece.

Harris wrote that other than franchises like Iron Man and Jurassic ParkWorld, “Almost everything else that comes out of Hollywood is either an accident, a penance (people who run the studios do like to have a reason to go to the Oscars), a modestly budgeted bone thrown to an audience perceived as niche (black people, women, adults), an appeasement (movie stars are still important and they must occasionally be placated with something interesting to do so they’ll be cooperative about doing the big stuff), or a necessity (sometimes, unfortunately, it is required that a studio take a chance on something new in order to initiate a franchise).” Does that cover Ridley Scott’s The Martian, a handsomely budgeted prestige picture? Does Harris’ rubric cover Inside Out, Trainwreck, Straight Outta Compton, Daddy’s Home, Black Mass, Spy, and The Big Short, all of which earned sizable profits?

You might say that Harris already responded in the same article with his most damning condemnation: “Yes, some good movies get through, but many that once would have now don’t, won’t, can’t. And a generation of midlevel executives that in the not-too-distant past would have been trained to develop and champion them now knows that doing so isn’t the way to move up in the ranks; these days, you make your bones by showing you can maximize the potential monetization of a preexisting brand or reawaken a dormant one. Stand-alone, non-repeatable hits are nice, but only in an outside-the-system way; they’re for people who don’t know how to think big.”

I’m not so sure about that, and it’s not just because Scott and Dargis don’t seem so alarmed, either. Universal just had the biggest year for any studio, ever, without a superhero or long-term “universe” strategy. (Ironically, Universal doesn’t have an “it’s all connected”-style plan while Disney and Warner Bros. do.) It’s true that Universal cashed in on Vin Diesel racing cars and stupid white people racing dinosaurs, but it’s also true that Universal’s “midlevel executives” have been developing “stand-alone, non-repeatable” films for quite a while. Tweeting to me (and others) this year, Judd Apatow marveled at all the original comedies that Universal has opened at over $30 million. For 2015, Hollywood’s (barely) record year, only Universal and Disney really earned; Warner Bros. barely broke even and Sony, Fox, and Paramount all lost a lot – while making blockbuster bets. Don’t their midlevel executives have reason to rethink any fealty to tentpole cinema?

Consider the possibility that the ecosystem can only support so many big lumbering beasts, and needs a few rarer birds to complement the environment. Harris is implicitly discussing films that almost have to open at #1 (or be perceived as failures now and five years from now, when the video rights come up again), and clearly there can only be 52 of those a year. So, are the six studios planning to scale back to release only about 8 or 9 movies a year? Not bloody likely, when their business model depends on releasing something more like one per week. Harris wrote that every studio wants to be Disney, but maybe that’s like saying every politician wants to be Bill Clinton – that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, and thus we might adjust expectations accordingly.

Perhaps – very perhaps – franchise films are showing signs of getting tangibly better. As I wrote in “The Summer that Rebooted the Reboot”, prior to 2015, it was pretty much unheard-of for a franchise to reboot after a decade and earn anything like a 90% score on Rotten Tomatoes. (It happened 4 times in 40 years.) This year, it happened twice, with Mad Max (97%) and Star Wars (94%). If Harris is right that we can’t seem to beat the franchise game, perhaps, as Scott and Dargis seem to aver, joining it doesn’t have to be quite as terrible as one might think, assuming more Mad Maxes and Force Awakenses can happen. If we throw in Ryan Coogler’s Creed (RT score 93%), and J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot (RT score 95%) there may be the beginnings of a rule here: as long as the franchise has some kind of obvious connection to 1970s’ directors – and here we might throw in Steven Spielberg and Ridley Scott – all is not lost.

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It feels appropriate that you’re likely reading this during the week that Star Wars: The Force Awakens becomes the all-time domestic champ scant weeks after its debut. (Leaving aside for now the “adjusted for inflation” discussion.) Success in Hollywood is supposed to beget success, so what would Harris, Scott, Dargis, and everyone else think if everyone tried to make films more like Star Wars Episode VII? I think we can all applaud the idea of leading roles moving toward diversity. The rest is divisive; some feel that director J.J. Abrams is too much of a fan, needs to take his eyes off the audience. Although Dargis writes, “Of course the one film that united almost everyone this year in a passionate, sustained frenzy is Star Wars: The Force Awakens — it’s been a collective bliss-out,” not every major media source is so enamored (looking at you, Ross Douthat), and even the most fulsome praise indicates concern that these old recycled myths may be running out of new things to tell us.

Cinema is such a strange industry and art form to study; unlike, say, mineral mining, even the most methodical quantitative analyses tend to be subjective. (Even the most prestigious journalists tend to quote someone like the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media without wondering how they chose their 300 films of a year or how they measured female screentime or presence.) If we can trust anyone to judge this moving target, it’s Harris, and perhaps Harris’ article will yet prove prescient, and we merely dodged (explosive, super-powered, invisible, mind-reading) bullets in 2015. Or perhaps Harris scared some executives into thinking outside the box. Or perhaps the truth is a little more nuanced than he wrote. Perhaps I’m merely accepting our overlords, and in 2016 we can expect that films will offer fewer and fewer revelations. Or perhaps the revelations will be televised.