Why Movies Suck Now Part One: The Myths

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Title says it all, right? “What’s gone wrong?” There are always a lot of reasons why this movie or that didn’t work, but rather than just waiting for the examples to inevitably turn up, I figured I’d try answering a lot of “What do YOU think?” and “What’s YOUR theory” questions all at once.

But first, I think it’s a good idea to refute some of the commonly cited reasons you might’ve heard elsewhere that, as far as I’m concerned, don’t make a lot of sense. See, the thing that a lot of the non-reasons have in common is that you’ll hear them from people who have an agenda – folks with a vested interest in what sort of movies they want to see made or not made – and thus the arguments will be framed accordingly. Such people ought not be trusted, by the same token that you shouldn’t take advice about the nutritional value of beef from PETA, or pass environmental policies drafted by politicians representing “energy states.”
So! Let’s get to it:

Myth #1: It’s About Politics

You hear this one a lot lately. There’s whole organizations like Big Hollywood, Movieguide, or the Parents Television Council, dedicated to evangelizing it, though of course it’s been around for a long time before that.

See, in case you hadn’t heard, the political leanings of the U.S. entertainment industry are overwhelmingly Liberal – a word which, here in America, is used as a slur to describe anyone slightly to the left of Yosemite Sam. So goes the theory espoused by delightful folks like this, Hollywood’s liberalism puts it out of touch with the (at least) half of the American audience that identifies as Conservative – and thus unable to make movies that appeal to “the folks.” Sounds vaguely plausible, right? Well, let’s crunch some numbers.

The United States’ most recent presidential election (as a good a barometer of these things as any) came down pretty close to 50/50, with about a three point margin favoring Barack Obama. Just going by that, one could extrapolate that the political makeup of the nation – and thus its moviegoers – would break the same way. Except for one thing: The whole country didn’t vote. In fact, only slight more than half of eligible voters actually cast a ballot, which is much higher than normal (voter turnout is typically down around 35-40%), as this was easily the most hotly divisive election since JFK vs. Nixon. So, really, the decidedly left/right split is more like 25/25, with the remaining 50% apparently being unconcerned. And if politics can’t motivate you to vote, how likely is it that they can motivate your movie choices? (Source of numbers can be found here.)

In other words, even if it is true that Hollywood’s largely left-wing worldview alienates dedicated right-wing audiences, that’s only about 1/4th of the population to begin with – a big loss, but hardly decisive.

And that’s ignoring how nebulous the concepts of “left” and “right” are in the U.S.. Not just as a split between big and small government philosophies but also among a litanty of social issues tossed arbitrarily to one side or the other – which makes pinning down the actual outlook of all but the most ham-fistedly political film fairly difficult. In the fourth Rambo, the hero saves a group of Chrisitian missionaries from Burmese guerillas. In the process, said missionaries’ smugly pacifist leader – who’d earlier excoriated John Rambo on the sinfulness of violence – learns that action trumps prayer and good intentions. Pro-war, yet irreligious? Where does that belong? V (as in For Vendetta) hates Government so much he makes Glenn Beck look like FDR, but his enemies are thinly-veiled analogs for the Bush Administration. Which one’s the liberal, again?

Myth #2: Blame It On Teenage Boys

“Hollywood used to make movies for everyone. Now they only care about teenage boys. And since teenage boys have awful taste, movies are awful.”

You’ve heard that one, right? Another one that sounds sensible, but is built on a foundation of half-truths and misunderstandings.

The notion that Hollywood at the tail end of The Golden Age (i.e. post-WWII – the first half of the 20th Century in the western world was so radically different a culture and so thoroughly obliterated by The War as to be wholly alien to this discussion) ever made movies for “everyone” is almost tragically naïve. Old Hollywood made movies for one audience: white men over 30. But because they held all the economic power in culture at that time, it seemed like what they preferred was preferred by all. Hollywood, like any business, has always catered to whatever it perceives as the biggest audience, not necessarily the broadest.

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Here, let’s do it this way:

A Demographic Timeline of Hollywood Movies

1945-1969: Most films aimed at adult male heads-of-household, with a small smattering of offerings aimed at women, minorities and children.

1969-1977: Audience fragments, as Civil Rights, Women’s Liberation and increased disposable income among children and teens erodes the economic monopoly of white males. Unable to discern a singular mega-market, Hollywood movies become increasingly small, personal and niche-driven.

1977-Present: A modestly-budgeted, largely-experimental movie called Star Wars becomes an unexpected record-setting mega-hit, particularly among young boys. “A-ha!” says Hollywood, “We’ve found a mega-market again!”

So, yes, from that point on Hollywood has been laser-focused on teenaged boys, but that’s not the same thing as bad movies being their fault, as it relies on the erroneous assumption that the types of films teenage boys prefer cannot be good or even great in their own right – Dark Knight and Iron Man can certainly attest to that. It also ignores recent developments like The Twilight Saga, easily the biggest blight on the cinema right now and most definitely not made for teenage boys.

This will be covered in greater specificity next week, but it seems like the bigger problem is that the massive movie industry refuses to deal with more than one audience at a time. So instead of accepting that not every movie can be for every moviegoer, they continue to make teen boy movies and then awkwardly cram them with ill-fitting extras that they expect to satisfy everyone else. Why does Spider-Man 3 re-hash a love triangle that was put to bed two movie ago? Because someone thought it’d make the film more attractive to women. And let’s not even get into the embarrassing, borderline-racist knots studios tie themselves into trying to appeal to what they see as the strange and mysterious “black audience.”

Myth #3: Hollywood Is Out Of Ideas

Too many remakes, too many sequels, too many adaptations of books, comics, TV shows … hell, now they’re even using board games and theme-park rides! Makes sense, right? Sure, except it doesn’t. You know that point at the 30-minute mark of every episode of House where the totally-sensible diagnosis turns out to be totally incorrect, the ambient noise and hospital sounds get suddenly louder and they cut to commercial on a sardonic quip from Hugh Laurie? This is one of those.

Hollywood has always made movies from pre-existing material. Go run down any list of “the classics,” then hit up the IMDB and marvel at how many of them were based on plays, books, history, legends and – yes – even other movies. The Maltese Falcon, regarded as the greatest of all detective films, had been filmed twice before, and all three were based on a book by Dashiell Hammett. Jaws? Godfather? Exorcist? Psycho? All adaptations. And while we’re at it, what’s the precise difference between a movie about Robin Hood and a movie about G.I. Joe, apart from the age of the material?

Now, to be fair, yes, there do seem to be exponentially more of them now, and from increasingly dubious source material, but that’s not a disease, it’s a symptom. The disease is expense: Movies cost too much to make, and take too long to turn a profit, so no one in charge of the money wants to take a risk on anything without proof-of-profitability already behind it. Transformers didn’t get made because someone at the studio loved a pitch about giant robots, or because Michael Bay was a fan of the franchise (in fact, he thought it was “stupid”), it got made because someone was able to point to a Mattel earnings report showing how much money these characters had already made.

Right now, professional screenwriters are turning their unsold original scripts into novels and comics so that they can make a sale now that the pitch is an “adaptation.” (That’s where the upcoming Cowboys & Aliens came from.) Elsewhere, others are digging through old idea bins looking for material that might work with the same title as an initially plotless board game or action figure line. Quick: Can you think of a functional premise somehow involving a hungry, hungry hippo? Because that might be worth money right now.

None of this is especially encouraging, but keep in mind that it’s the movie you make – not what you make it out of – that matters in the end. Knight & Day was an original pitch, Iron Man was an adaptation. Which was better, again?

So, there you have it: Three theories that aren’t responsible for movies sucking now. Next week: The real reasons.

Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.


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Author
Bob Chipman
Bob Chipman is a critic and author.