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Are Movies Getting Better?

The Oscars are coming

NOTE: This is an excerpt of Planet Money's newsletter. You can sign up here.

It's the Oscars on Sunday, and the betting markets favor Roma for Best Picture. Set in Mexico City in the 1970s, Roma is a gorgeous and evocative film about the joys and struggles of an indigenous housemaid named Cleo. It's also a film that doesn't quite fit the typical Hollywood mold. Shot in black and white, it's a slow-burn, foreign-language flick that lacks A-list stars and a big budget.

But what really sets Roma apart is it went almost directly to streaming on Netflix, which bought the rights to distribute the film. It had a short stint in theaters in order to qualify for awards. Yet, basically, it's an internet film and a perfect symbol of Hollywood's dramatic transformation over the last twenty years. It's part of a broad media revolution—in music, in books, in TV, and, yes, movies—that economist Joel Waldfogel calls a "digital renaissance," which is also the title of his new book.

99% Amazing

It's easy to boo the movie industry. It seems like every week there's another superhero movie or reboot or sequel—or prequel to the sequel. But Waldfogel argues that cinema really is better than ever.

Being an economist, he does it with data. His data provides evidence that the number of great films (as judged by both the majority of critics and average moviegoers) has exploded since digital technology helped reinvent the film industry in the early 2000s.

Waldfogel crunched the numbers on the 100 best films every year according to the movie-rating site Rotten Tomatoes. He finds that up and down the list, movies are getting rated higher. This is especially apparent for movies at the bottom of the list. The 100th-best movie of 1998, a reboot of the movie Psycho, scored only 38%, an atrocious score. In contrast, the 100th-best movie of 2018 was 24 Frames, which scored an impressive 94%.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here: Critical Acclaim Of Top Movies On Rotten Tomatoes (1998-2017).

(Assigning the job of valuing a culture's output to a site called Rotten Tomatoes does raise some flags. We should note that Waldfogel does try to measure the quality of movies from a few other angles, too.)

An Outlet Explosion

In the old movie system, Waldfogel says, it was prohibitively expensive for most people outside the major studios to make quality movies. And then once they were made, the limited number of movie screens created a distribution bottleneck. Digital technology changed all that.

Digital cameras and editing software made production crazy cheap. And the internet, with outlets like Amazon and YouTube, created an unlimited number of "theaters." As a result, "We've seen just an explosion in the number of movies made," says Waldfogel. If you look at features alone (and not documentaries), there are now at least three times more movies being made every year than there were in 2000.

Don't see the graphic above? Click here: Growth of U.S.-Origin Movies

"Nobody Knows Anything"

The famous screenwriter William Goldman had a saying about the ability of the movie studios to predict what would be a critical or commercial success: "Nobody knows anything." Waldfogel calls this "Goldman's Law," and he thinks it's important in understanding why opening the floodgates of new content hasn't left us only with a sea of duds.

Yes, the tripling of annual cinema output has brought us more awful movies like Father Of The Year, Future World, and Speed Kills, which all got a whopping 0% on Rotten Tomatoes this year. But the lower cost of making and distributing films with digital technology has also given the industry the ability to take more shots at greatness and reach niche audiences that they couldn't profitably reach before. Most importantly, digital filmmaking has lowered barriers to entry and given birth to a growing "minor league" of indie filmmakers, who can either go it alone with cheap digital production and distribution or prove themselves to the big studios as worthy of investment down the road. The result, Waldfogel argues, is many more cinematic gems.

Also, by the way, our money's on Roma.

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