Summertime used to be about big blockbuster movies. This summer box office receipts are sagging and even the sequels are having a hard time. The “Avengers: Endgame” phenomenon is an exception, but it points to a big shift in our popular culture landscape.
The movie industry is playing an endgame of its own as it tries to figure out whether theaters are still viable in an age of cheaper offerings like Netflix. The church should pay attention to this trend as well.
The theater has historically been a communal place of “worship.” Not worship in the religious sense but in a secular sense, what James K.A. Smith calls a “cultural liturgy.” These are activities that form our imaginations and worldviews in particular ways, and they don’t have to take place in a church.
Movies, sporting events and concerts are cultural liturgies because they draw upon our deep longing to be part of something bigger than ourselves and to share the experience with other people. These cultural liturgies don’t provide communion with God in the Eucharist, but they hint at a desire for some kind of communion.
The cinema has been helpful in giving us a common culture with stories about good and evil or suffering and redemption. However, those stories are not always rooted in the truth of the Gospel and what the church teaches. They are pure fantasy. If what young people are rejecting is fantasy, then their desire for something real may be experiencing a new awakening.
This is the blessing and curse of the social media age. Smartphones and Instagram feeds dominate the daily habits of young people, which means that the influence of Hollywood producers is waning. Young people are searching for something different, something more personal and real. They are searching for a better sense of themselves.
The movie “Jaws” is considered the first blockbuster. It was a fantasy starring a mechanical shark that terrorized a beach full of actors. Today, kids are more likely to follow the real story of shark attack survivor Paige Winter in North Carolina, a 17-year-old girl who has inspired her peers on social media with her fighting spirit and zeal for life. Posts about Paige on social media have exploded and reached “blockbuster” status.
Our pressing task is to remind young people that their experience on the internet need not be an empty fantasy full of dreams and desires about being the next Instagram star or gaining a thousand new followers.
That’s a movie mindset and the movie industry is dying because young people want to be exposed to the real world and their place in it. The church, not the cinema, has always been the best place to start that search.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.