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No Movie Theaters For This Critic Labor Day Weekend

It was the worst summer in 25 years in terms of ticket sales. August tickets sales are down 35% from a year ago. The Memorial Day to Labor Day period, which accounts for about two fifths of Hollywood’s annual domestic revenue is on track to fall 16%--worse than the 10% insiders predicted in May. 

No one exactly knows why: bad movies, which means gimmicks and sequels, ticket prices going up as the quality declines, the idea that’s taken hold that surprise has left the building, and that Game of Thrones and its TV counterparts more nearly engage the things that thrill, appall, or reflect what we’re thinking and feeling.  

Okay there were some bright spots, Wonder Woman, I wasn’t all that crazy about but which soaked up $400 million, the season’s topper as Variety used to say, presumably from the next crop of Women CEOS in 2030. And some concept movies worked: Girls Trip homed in on black women, Dunkirk outlived its no-characters-to-love critics by using the old Cinerama lure—See it on the big screen. Tiny Game Time scored with critics and guys by melding brotherhood to ferocious small time criminal weasel escape strategies. And Baby Driver broke through big time --$100 million box-office, which is great in relation to cost (about $35 million). It hit with the guys who convinced their girls that a getaway car driver with peach fuzz on his face named Baby, memorably played by Ansel Elgort standing up to Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx and Jon Hamm, was a great date movie.

Escape moves all. 

Europeans are stupid too. Unlike Americans they have historically taken a break from movies during the summer because they don’t want to think, and movies about characters make you think, something Pirates of the Caribbean #25 isn’t designed to do. The US model has been summer movies designed to be stupid so you don’t have to think. That doesn’t seem to be working out so well, anymore. And I assure you this is an ongoing story, because in addition to creative failure, the industry is facing a paradigm shift about where we go and when to see what. 

I’m looking forward to going off to the great Toronto Film Festival right after Labor Day, to see films aimed at the serious season of film going that ends at the Oscars next February. There are two tennis titles at the festival this year, the opening night film, Borg/McEnroe, about the 1980 Wimbledon showdown between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, who duke it out over competing notions of manhood. And Battle of the Sexes, with Emma Stone as Billie Jean King and Steve Carrell as Bobby Riggs, who volleyed over notions of gender and show business in the infamous 1973 stunt tennis match. Plus, there’s Darkest Hour with Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill taking command from failed Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1940, Downsizing by Alexander Payne—director of the Descendants, and Sideways--with Matt Damon and Kristin Wiig in a Hilarious—supposedly--quasi sci-fi comedy about a shrinking violet, and maybe Hostiles, Scott Cooper’s story about a cavalry officer escorting a Cheyenne chief to safety, with Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike. Those are the big titles, but it’s the ones off the radar at Toronto—like last year’s Moonlight by Barry Jenkins that consistently steal the gold. 

Which brings me back to where I begin with my annual Labor Day address to the nation. I don't go to the movies over Labor Day weekend. For me, a film critic, going to movies is work--that's a little strange isn't it--but it's labor, it's what I do. I happen to like what I do, because I believe in the power of cinema to transport us to other worlds and to clarify experience in the process. I don’t go to the insiders Telluride Film Festival over Labor Day weekend. Rather, I take time on Labor Day to stop work and reflect. For me, it's a day for family and friends. My parents who had only just met in Schroon Lake, NY, eloped to Elkton, MD – which is what you did back then -- on Labor Day, 1938, and a year later my brother was born in Wilkes Barre, PA.  The nurse said to my mother, “Congratulations, Mrs. Jacobson, you have a beautiful baby boy. And Hitler invaded Poland.” It’s also the 25th anniversary of my second chance, married at a house by the sea on Cape Cod on Labor Day, 1992. 

Now I savor the last licks of summer on this Labor Day, my children having flown the coop for careers or college, as all three keep that appointment with the open road they so desperately want to take them across the light curtain to the future. Today is tomorrow is the past we try so hard to remember and can never forget.

So let us understand Labor Day and why I don’t work on Labor Day. It is the one holiday that does not force you to swear fealty to a religion, the nation, or a man—that last, never more important than now. It is about you, and what you do, and with whom you do it. Labor Day is about work. It is so very American. And… it is a rest in the rolling of the drums.

Have a great Labor Day.  

Harlan Jacobson became WBGO's film critic in 2010, covering the international film scene for the "WBGO Journal," with reports from film festivals around the world about films arriving on the scene in the greater New York-New Jersey metroplex.