The Death of the Middlebrow Legal Thriller
July 26, 2019 1:09 PM   Subscribe

Twenty-five years ago, Hollywood was enjoying a pipeline to success as clean and unobstructed as any. The paperback legal thrillers of author John Grisham featured in supermarkets across the nation, and starting with The Firm in 1993, were taking over movie theaters, too.

Joe Reid takes the occasion of the 25th anniversary of The Client, which earned Susan Sarandon a somewhat surprising Oscar nomination, to look back at the legal-thriller genre and mourn its place in the shrinking "middle class of movies — not indie, not Avengers" and the Oscar narratives that middle class helped write.
posted by Etrigan (32 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
What interesting timing! I was dwelling earlier today on the inaction of the House re: impeachment and how, in the 90s zeitgeist of the courtroom drama of course Clinton would face proceedings after a decade of OJ, A Few Good Men and Grisham. Now I guess we've all been conditioned to expect, I dunno, some sort of spandex-clad mutant with a dubious backstory to save the day rather than procedural jurisprudence?
posted by St. Oops at 1:42 PM on July 26, 2019 [20 favorites]


The writer lists some rather odd examples of the genre. Clear and Present Danger and Philadelphia?
posted by brundlefly at 1:50 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


And also Patriot Games.

But overall, I think the point about Hollywood's missing middle is an interesting one.

Arguably, the Grisham novels-to-movies were an early example of a current problem in Hollywood -- the studios won't greenlight anything that doesn't have an existing intellectual property behind it. These movies may well have helped create the missing middle and then disappeared in the process.
posted by jacquilynne at 1:57 PM on July 26, 2019 [6 favorites]


Still want a She-Hulk legal thriller movie. C'mon, Hollywood, make my fourth-wall-breaking green dream come true.
posted by asperity at 2:09 PM on July 26, 2019 [28 favorites]


I saw Spike Lee speak a few years ago and he complained about the lack of funding for mid-budget films. He said something like, you can get a dollar to make a movie or a hundred million but nothing in between.
posted by octothorpe at 2:14 PM on July 26, 2019 [16 favorites]


As rote as legal thrillers can be, I would trade in all the superhero movies for movies about adults wrestling with ethical dilemmas instead of CGI critters.

I remember watching The Client as a kid and being terrified during the suicide scene.
posted by sallybrown at 2:29 PM on July 26, 2019 [11 favorites]


I loved The Pelican Brief!
posted by growabrain at 2:33 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


It's all about the overseas market these days, isn't it? No point making a movie that only Americans will watch when there are billions of other people in the world.
posted by LindsayIrene at 2:34 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


you can get a dollar to make a movie or a hundred million but nothing in between.

Figgur out how to get folks on the intrwebs to chip in a buck to watch mid range films or some way to at least break even, the few indi theaters are locked into blockbuster contracts and few customers show up anyway and the chains will run something for a couple days. Maybe give roles to a bunch of youtube stars to expand themselves, imagine pewpew arguing in a jury room with meryl streep, that'll put some butts in seats.
posted by sammyo at 2:37 PM on July 26, 2019


These are dad movies. They've all been turned into TV shows that you can find on Amazon Prime.
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:55 PM on July 26, 2019 [12 favorites]


As LindsayIrene said above, it's about what will sell in foreign markets, particularly China.

If you want to do something else for theatrical release, it better be a pet project of someone with pull, an Oscar vehicle, an indie with hopes of being picked up for broad distribution, or an animated film (low cost).

BUT the upside (current saving grace?) is that everything interesting has moved to streaming services and pay channels.

This mirrors other entertainment areas as well - books and music. blockbuster/best sellers emphasis through physical brick&mortar with business models designed to find and promote those. Everyone else survives through other paths. Midlist authors are disappearing from big 5 publishers and bookshelves. Fewer musical acts/performers being released in physical formats. It all mirrors what you see in theatrical movie releases.
posted by eviltwin at 2:55 PM on July 26, 2019


Not just midmarket thrillers, either. Comedy has also been kinda killed by streaming. Or it’s just, you know, moved.

I’m part of the problem. No way would I go to a theater unless a movie I really cared about was really meant to be seen that way, and since I can’t stand Marvel crap...god when was the last time that happened? Fury Road?
posted by schadenfrau at 3:16 PM on July 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


A lot of places seem to be loosing the middle. Video games for example. Everyone either is doing tiny self-funded stuff, or is part of a giant organization that won't even try for SOME of the money, it has to be ALL of the money, to borrow a line from Jim Sterling.

I think part of the problem is the amount you can spend making something look good has risen a lot recently, so you can go indie and get by on charm and good design, or spend all of the money making it look amazing, but there is a valley where you don't have a small number of guiding voices making it have that special something, but you don't have enough shiny graphics to compete with the AAA league.
posted by Canageek at 3:27 PM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


I'm surprised that article didn't mention The Rainmaker at least once. That was Matt Damon's first starring role and it had a bunch of people in it.
posted by Fukiyama at 3:31 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


I wonder how much of Hollywood's interest in legal thrillers was studio execs seeing themselves (literally or mentally) in court.
posted by doctornemo at 4:15 PM on July 26, 2019


Presumed Innocent (1990, film) is what I'd call the first modern legal thriller.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 4:17 PM on July 26, 2019 [7 favorites]


Metafilter’s most niche event has got to be Joel Schumacher Week
posted by roger ackroyd at 4:33 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


Metafilter’s most niche event has got to be Joel Schumacher Week

I'll contribute by covering his music-video directing work!
posted by The_Vegetables at 4:49 PM on July 26, 2019 [1 favorite]


growabrain: I loved The Pelican Brief!

Then you might be pleased to learn that MeFi's own Cris E created the onscreen computer images that simulated searches of the WestLaw caselaw systems.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:03 PM on July 26, 2019 [12 favorites]


"rote as legal thrillers can be, I would trade in all the superhero movies for movies about adults wrestling with ethical dilemmas instead of CGI critters."

Amen.

"A Time to Kill" is the best Grisham movie.
posted by kevinbelt at 6:04 PM on July 26, 2019 [2 favorites]


MeFi's own Cris E created the onscreen computer images that simulated searches of the WestLaw caselaw systems

THIS IS SO COOL!
posted by sallybrown at 6:07 PM on July 26, 2019 [4 favorites]


Everybody spent the 2000s at home watching Law and Order reruns. Doesn’t get more middlebrow than that.
posted by spitbull at 6:30 PM on July 26, 2019 [8 favorites]


Yeah, that’s how I learned that in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate, yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:54 PM on July 26, 2019 [12 favorites]


These are their stories...

DUN DUN!
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:03 PM on July 26, 2019 [9 favorites]


The Death of the Middlebrow Legal Thriller

This phrasing makes me imagine that the Highbrow Legal Thriller and Lowbrow Legal Thriller movie genres are still going strong at the cinemas.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 8:42 PM on July 26, 2019 [8 favorites]


I try not to dump on things people like, but The Firm is one of the worst movies I've ever paid money to see in a theater. The book was junk food, but it kept you turning the pages. The movie...Cruise is so fucking bad in this. The only good thing was evil Brimley.
posted by Chrysostom at 9:50 PM on July 26, 2019 [5 favorites]


There was some good Tom Cruise running in The Firm. I especially like the way his neck tie flaps over his shoulder, like a dogs tongue when it’s panting.
posted by valkane at 5:42 AM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


Fascinated with the missing middle.

Episodic serials have radically improved at the same time as cinema-as-a-space faltered, especially throughout the ever-increasing parts of the world where an always-on connection is expected. The wave of mid-quality Korean shows right now is incredible, e.g.

And it's filtered throughout creative culture - a lot of younger directors are pitching directly to Netflix and HBO.
posted by aspersioncast at 6:34 AM on July 27, 2019 [2 favorites]


The Netflix spigot will turn off at some point, they’re losing money and, finally, subscribers, because so much of what’s on Netflix is absolute trash. Their strategy isn’t working.

And then, when the great streaming wars finally end and we’re left with a handful of streaming services divided up by whatever 3-4 media companies own, they’ll jack up the prices and stop making 75% of their original stuff. I guess Amazon Prime will stick around because Amazon.
posted by Automocar at 8:00 AM on July 27, 2019


Yes, they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in hell!
posted by kirkaracha at 10:36 AM on July 27, 2019 [3 favorites]


I think original content is one of the few things keeping Netflix supporters interested - they ruined their search interface and have shittier legacy content than Prime. It'll be interesting to see how this all works out for the various other streaming platforms. HBO sorta elevated the idea, but I have no idea how profitable their streaming arm is. Regardless, the B grade film is being produced for streaming rather than cinema, and Netflix disappearing isn't going to reverse that.
posted by aspersioncast at 5:57 AM on July 28, 2019


The Netflix spigot will turn off at some point, they’re losing money and, finally, subscribers, because so much of what’s on Netflix is absolute trash. Their strategy isn’t working.

God I would love to be able to dive into their data. They saw something that made them think they could cancel shows with loyal followings after 2-3 seasons and still come out ahead, so they did just that. But I'm wondering how much that has backfired, and whether that would have been discoverable in the data. Like they clearly thought that these properties were substitutable, but that's not how emotional attachment to fictional worlds works.

And if it happens to more than one show that you care about? If you learn not to get invested in Netflix content?

I'm also kind of fascinated that they managed to self-engineer the destruction of their major advantage over advertising supported platforms. Like the whole thing with ads is that you need eyeballs, and the more you get at once, the more you can charge. That puts pressure on everything, from marketing for the big opening to how stories themselves are structured (sweeps!). One of Netflix's initial advantages, and what they've managed to fuck up royally, is that streaming allowed for slow discovery AND binge watching, which is something you didn't get anywhere else. In the era of peak TV and everyone working crazy jobs, being able to schedule your own viewing is really awesome. But now Netflix themselves are looking at early numbers when deciding how to promote something and whether to renew it, recreating the exact same pressures of advertising supported models.

It's really, really dumb, and I'm curious if we have myopic MBAs to blame for that. That and the distortions of being a publicly traded company, probably. Like, at some point you will saturate the market of people who stream content, at which point your growth will be limited by the growth of that market itself. That's not a failure unless you treat it like one and shoot yourself in the foot trying to recapture growth metrics that have become physically impossible.
posted by schadenfrau at 8:03 AM on July 28, 2019 [7 favorites]


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