Last week was the fun part, when I got to tear down a lot of weak excuses I’m sick of hearing about the supposed decline of modern moviemaking. This is the depressing part, where we have to go down the list of what actually is going wrong.
Reason #1: People Only Care About Friday
It takes hundreds of thousands of people to make a movie, and almost all of them are involved in separate unions, guilds and agencies. This, plus insurance and taxes, makes everything incredibly expensive. To offset the expense, cost is dispersed through multiple studios, multinational investors, back-end (to say nothing of back-room) deals with “the talent” and commercial tie-ins – hence why you’ll so often see movies apparently set in alternate universe where the only laptop available is the Vaio – and everyone’s accountant has things laid out so they look like “the winner” for as long as possible, since money-management is a full-time job and most “creative” folks are famously bad at it to begin with.
In other words, nobody knows what anything really costs, and no one will know how much money they’ve made for a long time after the work is done, which leaves studio executives trying to lay out their achievements and cost/benefit analysis with very few concrete “wins” to claim at any given moment, except for one: “Who won the weekend?”
Yes, the one solid and immediate piece of hard data anyone gets is the totals of who earned what between Friday and Sunday. Whatever was #1 at the box office “won,” everything else “lost,” and someone gets to put “I produced a #1 movie!” on their resume. Gee, how could that go wrong?
As you can imagine, weekend totals can be incredibly deceptive: They ignore how much a film cost, along with being a poor indicator of how it will fare long-term. Most horror films, for example, open high but sink like a stone the next week. Predators only opened in 3rd place, but cost so little to produce thanks to penny-pinching producer Robert Rodriguez it’s probably going to turn profit much faster than most number ones. More troublingly, it means that certain audiences effectively don’t matter. Generally, only two types of moviegoers care about opening night: hardcore movie-geeks and non-discriminating folks who’ll see whatever’s at the right time on date night. Other audiences see things during the week, or at matinees, but since all anyone cares about is the weekend, the input of those audiences is ignored unless one of their movies becomes a phenomenon – as in the inexplicable popularity of My Big Fat Greek Wedding.
So, what ends up getting made? For the most part, actioners and genre pictures (for the geeks) dumbed down for the “whatever’s playing” crowd. Recipe. For. Disaster.
Reason #2: Mainstream Audiences Are Idiots
Does this one even need explanation? Jersey Shore outdraws nearly every news and information program on TV. Transformers 3 is going to earn a billion dollars. Newsweek is floundering while Us Weekly is thriving. We are not living in an intellectual age.
Now, before everyone jumps down my throat: No, I’m not calling you stupid. I’m calling US stupid – as in “us, the alleged civilization of man.” Remember that great line from Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”
But, on the other hand …
Reason #3: Movie Geeks Are Elitist, Spoiled Brats
You can’t put all the blame on Joe Sixpack. Film geeks have done a lot of good for the movies: championing offbeat films, preserving lost classics and acting as middle-men between filmmakers and audiences. Oh, and we also put together the odd internet TV Show here and there.
But in other ways, we suck. We got lazy. The DVD era made it too easy. We got used to not jumping through hoops to find the odd and obscure, so now, even though more geek material is being made and released than ever before, if it’s not perfect, we don’t want it. We want it pristine, uncut and playing at a multiplex right near our house. Is it a horror film? Better be R-rated! Is it foreign? Better be subtitled! That one might come as a surprise to anyone reading this in nations like France, where native-language dubbing is the norm: Americans are huge snobs about dubbing now – even kung-fu movies play subtitled here. (This is my own ultimate nerd heresy: So long as I can get a subbed copy later, I don’t mind dubbing if it helps cool movies reach a bigger audience. Yes, even anime. Especially anime.) And if we don’t get these things, we won’t show up. We’ll wait for DVD, or pirate it “in protest.” Then we’ll complain about why nothing good comes out anymore.
But all that might be forgivable as mere nerd eccentricities if we weren’t also such jerks about it. Time was, a key component of movie geekdom was introducing all the crazy stuff you found to unsuspecting others. “Dude! You’ve GOT to see this!” Now it’s all about pop cultural hoarding – protecting our icons from the grubby fingers of a mainstream audience that doesn’t deserve a chance to experience them. Folks, it’s fun to know more about something than everyone else, but it doesn’t count if they only don’t know because you’re hiding it.
Reason #4: Theaters Get Screwed
Here’s how the movie theater business model works, in theory: Theaters pay to rent the prints of movies from studios to draw an audience who’ll buy tickets (the profits of which they’ll split with the studios) and maybe also snacks (the profits of which they’ll keep). Both entities need the other to survive, creating a sustainable symbiotic relationship.
Here’s how it works in practice: Since there’s basically no truly independent distributorship left (thanks, deregulation!), studios have an insanely greater level of power in this relationship – they can set all the terms, because there’s nowhere for theaters to turn for product. As such, they’ve been able to negotiate plum deals like keeping more and more of the ticket sales and sketchy package deals whereby theaters have to agree to book certain iffy releases if they want to also book a big one from the same studio: “You want our eagerly-awaited Leonardo DiCaprio action movie? You’ve gotta take our crummy undead cowboy movie first!” (That’s a theoretical example, by the way; I have no evidence that that’s how Jonah Hex got a release, but it wouldn’t shock me.)
So if you want to know why the projection sucks, why the floors are sticky, why the sound is lousy and why the ushers can’t seem to do anything about crowd control, it’s because they can’t afford to. They need butts in seats, bottom line, and even then they’re barely surviving at this point.
Reason #5: Nature Abhors a Vacuum
If you were to ask me what the three most intellectually-toxic movie franchises are right now, you’d be unsurprised to learn my answers were Twilight, Sex & The City and Tyler Perry. You know what they all have in common? They exist because mainstream Hollywood did a piss-poor job of paying proper attention to niche audiences – niche in Hollywood meaning any audience that is not white, male and aged 15-35.
We’ve been through this before, but suffice it to say that if black, female, teen-girl and other niche audiences were better served to begin with, these three abominations would hold no appeal. It’s an abusive relationship dynamic reconstituted as a business model: If no one is paying attention to you, you’ll more readily settle for bad attention.
Reason #6: Because They’ve Always Sucked
Yeah, I know, ending on this one is kind of a wishy-washy cop-out. But it also happens to be true. Theodore Sturgeon said it best: “90% of everything is crud.” Always has been, always will be.
But time, healing as it does all wounds, tends to erase memories of all but the absolute worst from cinema history’s memory, giving the illusion that things used to be better. No, they didn’t. Not really. There were always bad movies and good movies that could’ve been better, and entirely different sets of reasons behind them.
In the early 20th Century, movies sucked because technology limited the realization of vision and social inequality kept some of the best people from being properly employed because of their race, gender, orientation or what-have-you.
In the years following WWII, Western culture (and American culture in particular) became exponentially more conservative, and thus movies sucked because the heavy doses of sex, violence and debauchery that characterized popular cinema in prewar Hollywood were now being censored out of existence by the Hays Production Code. Don’t believe me? Watch this Roman Collosseum scene from 1932’s Sign of The Cross. Yes, that is a naked woman being offered to a gorilla you’re seeing at 7:07. The same movie also has a Roman soldier corrupting his Christian would-be girlfriend by buying her a lesbian lap-dance. Most of those scenes, and scenes like them from other films, were actually retroactively cut when the film was re-screened in the 50s – even Fay Wray’s brief nudity from the original King Kong!
In the 60s, movies sucked because Hollywood was slow catching up to a rapidly-evolving American culture, and in the 70s movies sucked because the studio system collapsed and low-rent producers were able to pack the market with exploitative junk, but then in the 80s movies sucked because the studio system came back and packed the market with soulless mass-market commercialism. And in the 90s … you get the idea.
The point is, there’s always going to be bad things, and there’s always going to be a reason. But unless you want to go insane trying to constantly plug the leak, it helps to accept that nothing ever works 100% of the time. Usually, we’re lucky to get about 20.
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.