Once again the movie industry is throwing itself a lavish party, one in a series of them, even though there is surprisingly little to celebrate. Movie attendance in 2011 hit a fifteen-year low, and while the industry isn’t doing as badly as its counterparts in the music industry, beneath the greasepaint and glamour, it is panicking every bit as badly.
There’s still plenty of money to be made, but the industry has the clear sense that it has lost its audience. And it has.
The movie industry began, as so much else, with the mass production of theatrical entertainment from classical drama to low vaudeville spectacle. Public entertainment no longer had to be an in-person show repeated anew each time and in each place. Now everyone across the nation and across the world could hear the same soliloquy, see the same pratfall and thrill to adventures that could not be performed on stage.
For all the technology, the movie took American culture and used film to reproduce it in palatable form to large audiences. Like mass produced suits, the cinema took a unique experience and turned it into a universal one. But selling films was much trickier than selling suits and involved far more risks, and while the analogy seems distant, fashion and entertainment have a great deal in common.
When you sell wares that depend on the public taste, you have to try and manipulate that taste while at the same trying to get out in front of it. Both fashion and entertainment frantically chase trends and leap on anything that smacks of youth, while trying to fuse it with their own dated tastes, constantly reviving and retrofitting the old to make it new again. At their worst, both end up selling a product with no content, a product that is all hype, but is not remotely wearable or viewable.
While Hollywood has often been rightly blamed for corrupting national morals, it’s more accurate to say that it was actually rushing to get out in front of whatever trend it had spotted among the youth market and to desperately claim ownership of it. Underneath the calculatedly transgressive image is a basically conservative industry, which, but for its drugs and its eagerness to gamble on trends, would be far more staid than it is.
The old moguls whose names are still attached to a number of the studios were not creative men; they were businessmen in a business they did not properly know how to control. Instead they bet on talent, often hoping that bringing together celebrated foreign directors, actors and actresses from their stable and lowly writers, would give them a hit. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. At its best, stories ended up being told that helped define an era. American stories that spoke to people.
That era is mostly gone. While Hollywood was always fairly liberal, as the theater tends to be, liberals had not yet cut their ties with the country. They did not live so fundamentally differently that they were unable to make compelling stories that spoke to them and to their audiences. But it is hard to make movies for a people from another culture. The movies that speak to liberals translate badly to ordinary Americans.
It isn’t only a matter of politics; it comes down to culture. With the recession, the industry has tossed out a number of movies that have people dealing with economic troubles. Almost all of them have failed badly. The latest entry, Wanderlust, has already bombed on its opening. To understand why you need only consider the premise, which is that an upscale Manhattan couple lose their jobs and move to a commune. No one outside Hollywood or Manhattan really needed to be told why this premise would play badly in a country that has fallen on hard times.
The easiest way to bypass the culture clash is to turn out action movies that are all sound and fury. The blockbuster has evolved or devolved into a special effects spectacle with completely disposable characters and, increasingly, even actors. It is a form of entertainment that can be enjoyed even without the ability to understand a single word. Which makes it a portable commodity that can play anywhere from Beijing to Bahrain to Boston.
Hollywood can no longer communicate with audiences, but when it spends enough money or comes up with a clever enough gimmick, it can still briefly dazzle them. But the entertainment being created is completely disposable and forgettable. Cinematic amusement park rides can bring big paydays or big losses, but they don’t build loyalty or any meaningful associations. The experiences that earlier generations had in movie theaters cannot be reproduced, because the culture on both sides of the screen has changed.
If the industry wonders why going to movies no longer seems to be very important to people, that would be because movies have become completely disposable. There was a time when movies held a status similar to the theater. The more quickly they raced to the bottom, the less reason audiences had to hold them in esteem.
There are no movies being made that you would dress up for. The very idea is ridiculous. Nor is the theater designed to be anything other than a place to be bombarded by massive amounts of sound and light. It’s an experience in the same way that riding a roller coaster is an experience. It just isn’t one that stays with you any longer than it takes for the coaster to stop.
The industry treats Americans like foreigners, shoveling out massive 300 million dollar spectacles while reserving its lower budgeted serious films for the subjects dearer to its heart. The spectacles help cover the cost of the smaller films and maintain a moviegoing culture, which mostly consists of a small crowd that shares the lifestyles and politics of the filmmakers.
This version of high and low culture speaks to the ghettoization of the industry, which, sighing deeply, shovels out 88 minutes of explosions for the peasantry, while speaking earnestly to the people who share its values. The Oscars are a time to reward the latter, which is why directors and producers of popular movies generally need not apply. This is a time for elites to pat each other on the back for being artistic, and yet this artistry is equally forgettable.
Few people can name the best picture winners from more than a year or two ago. And that even includes people in the industry. Naming the nominees is a laborious task. Watching them a year or two later is rarely done, because for all their “merit,” they are not very good movies. Having seen them once, there is no real reason to watch them again.
Twenty years from now, how many people will be watching Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button? For that matter, how many people would watch them now? If you are wondering what that list is, it’s the Best Picture nominees from 2008. The nominees from this year will be equally obscure a few years from now.
The cultural division has devalued both high-brow and low-brow offerings, removing their substance and worth, and turning out a sub-par product that does not connect to audiences at either end.
The Oscars are another reminder that we don’t live the same way. Nor are we expected to. In a process that began early on and is quickly approaching its apex, the industry itself has become a free source of entertainment. Readers and viewers consume material about Jennifer Aniston, they just don’t spend the money to see her movie. The movie industry is just a subset of popular culture, which is about personalities, where ordinary people and stars both play their roles in an unreal reality.
Hollywood mass produced theatrical entertainment, using technology to distribute prints of the same edited together performance in theaters across the country. But the videotape made it possible to distribute copies of that same performance in the home. Now even a physical medium isn’t needed when a movie can be streamed directly to the viewer on a computer or a tablet.
All that’s missing is the theatrical experience and so theater owners have spent a fortune on everything from menu options to digital picture, audio and various forms of 3D. But the theatrical venue was an outgrowth of family entertainment. The decline of the family and of leisure time has meant a decline in a form of entertainment that has at any rate become disposable.
Families still go to the movies, and without them, the industry would be in far worse shape, but the meaning of the theatrical experience has fragmented on both ends of the culture. A changing nation that no longer lives the same way has less room in their schedules and wallets for the movie theater. The moviegoing experience once meant something; now it means nothing, and it is too late to even begin to reclaim that experience for a generation for whom the only appeal of the movie theater is its scale.
The movie theater isn’t dead, but it is increasingly irrelevant as a storytelling medium. After generations of chasing trends, the industry has been permanently left behind.
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