Voices: Denzel helped saved cinema. Now we need him to Equalize studio execs’ AI fixation

Believe it or not, it was less Barbenhemier than Equalizer 3 that had me feeling some real optimism about the future of cinema, a medium I love but that some have predicted will ultimately follow Blockbuster video rental stores into one day becoming a museum piece.

However, for the time being cinema is still with us. Barbie and Oppenheimer lit up the box office and left stars in the eyes of all those involved.

But Barbenheimer does rather have the feel of one of legendary screenwriter William Goldman’s “non-recurring phenomena”. There’s no way to replicate it.

No one would have dreamed that two chalk and cheese films aimed at completely different audiences would somehow reinforce one another, each drawing from multiple demographics to create a cultural lodestar complete with stellar returns ($895m global gross for Oppenheimer and a year’s best $1.4bn so far for Barbie per Box Office Mojo).

Suggesting co-promoting the pair as Barbenheimer before the meme emerged from the swamp of social media at a marketing meeting in the run up? It would have got you fired faster than Ken fell in love with patriarchy.

Pre-release, Equalizer 3 meanwhile had the feel of a run of the mill wrap-up for a moderately successful franchise – one which probably wouldn’t have got that far without the formidable duo of Denzel Washington and Antoine Fuqua at the helm.

So what? Denzel putting the bad guys, and the world, to rights was just what I needed at the end of a hard week when it opened. But when I tried to book, I noticed it was selling out cinemas. And it was an older demographic doing the heavy lifting.

I’ve seen some mind-blowingly stupid comments in reviews of late. That of the rube who sneeringly called it a movie that it’s “safe to take your dad to” is by no means the worst. But it’s up there. Dads didn’t need “taking” to see Denzel by patronising gen-whatever reviewers. We had a blast on “Labor day” in the US box office and on this side of the pond.

If Equalizer 3 can tempt a somewhat reluctant demographic off its collective sofa, perhaps cinemas are safe for a while. The film’s continuing strong returns – it has broken through the $100m barrier and is on track to beat both its predecessors – is all the more notable given its star hasn’t been available to promote it, a consequence of the Screen Actor’s Guild strike in the US. The latter has gummed up the Hollywood machine alongside a related action by the Writers Guild of America, now in its fifth month.

A big driver for these is the fear that writers will have to share credit with (or end up being elbowed out by) AI. Lesser-known actors may simply vanish into a puff of computer-generated pixels.

Audiences will suffer too. Studio executives love their formulas and their franchises. They’re less keen on creative types taking risks. Except that taking risks is what delivered Barbenheimer. Barbie did what it did because its director, Greta Gerwig, reportedly resisted pressure from Mattel to fluff it up even if, ultimately, there was a bit of a case of the toy giant getting to have its cake and eat it with the way she rewired the doll.

Could AI ever do that? Do you think AI could have produced Oppenheimer? A dark and thought-provoking smash with a three-hour run time made up largely of people talking in rooms.

But Equalizer, you say. That’s different. One word use by critics, including some of the ones worth reading, is “formulaic”.

But wait a minute. What made it such a draw to us dads was Denzel’s soulful take on his morally conflicted protagonist. Without that, sure, it might be just another action flick. Something you could cheerfully sit back and wait for the inevitable appearance on Netflix.

While the action is great, expertly directed, it is the human element that makes it work. Dads went for it partly because it’s wish fulfilment. We’d dearly love to be able to simple blow away the bad guys to make a sorry-ass world safer for our kids. Except we know that’s not possible in reality. We often find ourselves as conflicted as Denzel’s Robert McCall. There’s the human element again.

Without the resolution of the disputes, cinema as an industry, and as a medium, is ultimately going to take another knock. How could it not? Without the big draws, people will once again fall out of the habit of going. Some won’t go back. It will be nice to see indie films – they are still getting made and promoted – given some space to breathe. It will be a fine thing to look at the cinema times and see more than a handful of flicks hogging all of the screens, half of which you’ve seen, the other half you don’t want to.

But it is the blockbusters that fuel the industry. Cinema operators rely on their pulling power to keep the roof from falling in. The indie surprise that makes $70m, the live screenings of theatre shows, art exhibitions or Metallica gigs, the re-releases of classics – they’re icing on top of the cake.

If the actors and the writers’ fears are realised, however, those blockbusters could become even more soulless than too many already are, and the whole thing will be done for a lot of us.