"Squid Game" would have never made it as a movie. But we'll get back to that in a minute.
There's a scene in the Queen biopic "Bohemian Rhapsody" when the band is trying to convince a label exec to release "Bohemian Rhapsody" as a single. The exec, played by Mike Myers, is vehemently against the idea, arguing radio will never play "a six-minute quasi-operatic dirge comprised of nonsense words."
The whole scene is intended as a wink-wink to the audience, who of course know better than the stupid suit at the label. But the thing is, he was right! Radio would never play a song like that ... until it did, and that exec had no idea at the time that this one instance would become the exception to the rule. He wasn't a genius, he was just a guy doing his job.
"Bohemian Rhapsody" would go on to become a huge hit in the 1970s, again in the 1990s and again in the 2010s, becoming Queen's defining single and recently landing at No. 17 on Rolling Stone's list of the 500 greatest songs of all-time. It didn't become a hit because of record labels or gatekeepers but because of the people, who made it a hit and who continue to make it a hit. It broke pretty much every established rule for hit songs up to that time and ever since.
Much like "Squid Game." The Netflix phenomenon has become the must-watch title of 2021, a cultural monolith and worldwide sensation that has become basically the only thing pop culture has talked about for the last few weeks. Before a few weeks ago, a squid game didn't exist, and saying the two words together would earn you strange stares from anyone within earshot. Now, if you're not one of the 111 million people worldwide who has already seen it, the pressure to binge it is so massive that it feels like if you don't do it next weekend you're giving up on participating in society.
How big is "Squid Game?" Well a James Bond movie came out earlier this month, and how many people do you hear talking about that? That's precisely the point. In terms of having the pulse of the people, the action is all at home, streaming. The movies don't stand a chance, not anymore, of capturing that kind of immediate buzz.
There are many reasons for this, and let's get the fact that we're still in a pandemic out of the way first. But the movie business remains one that is built on hype. There are teaser trailers for teaser trailers, and months of buildup before a blockbuster hits your local screen. Without seeing it, you feel like you've seen it. Did you really need to see "F9" to see "F9?" Fast cars, Vin Diesel, family, got it. And even if you didn't see "F9," you probably feel like you did, more than once even. Same goes with "No Time to Die," which by the time it arrived on screens last weekend, had been pushed back two full years. Billie Eilish's theme song was released in February 2020 and already picked up a Grammy at this year's ceremony.
"Squid Game" arrived with zero hype, and that was part of its allure. Just like "Tiger King" and "The Queen's Gambit" before it, the first time you heard of it was somebody saying, "have you seen this yet?" The urgency came baked in. By the second mention, you could feel something was happening. By the third, it felt like you were already missing out.
It's a genuine, honest-to-goodness word-of-mouth hit, and it's been a long time since the movies have been able to produce one of those. Um, "The Blair Witch Project," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and not much since. Partially it's because of the movies that get made, which are so costly they better be hits, or else. That's why the multiplex is clogged with superheroes, sequels and movies based on Disney rides. Presold properties are the name of the game at the movies, and if someone is going to get dressed, get in their car, go to the theater, buy concessions, sit in a theater and risk the person next to them fiddling with their phone for two hours, they better know what they're in for.
At home, on Netflix, the buy-in couldn't be lower. You don't even have to get dressed. And that thing that everyone's talking about? It's already on your TV, and you already paid for it. We live in an instant culture, and there's a lot of hoops to jump through to get out to a movie, or even to rent one at home, where first run blockbusters are going to cost you more than your monthly Netflix bill. And even if "No Time to Die" was streaming at home, it wouldn't have the buzz of "Squid Game."
The fact that "Squid Game" is South Korean, subtitled and ultraviolent makes it an even more unlikely hit, but that's the power that word-of-mouth carries. Especially in a culture where we're all off doing our own thing all the time, it's nice to still have something that brings us together, no matter what that thing is. That's what "Bohemian Rhapsody" did, that's what "Squid Game" has done and that's what the movies are having an increasingly hard time doing. "Squid Game" wrote new rules for what a hit could look like, while the movies are still playing by an old rulebook.
(Adam Graham is the film critic for The Detroit News.)
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