Jewish World Review March 16, 2001 / 23 Adar, 5761
Consider the avalanche of bad news that has begun burying the movie business:
No wonder the traditional pre-Oscar hoopla feels hollow and listless this year, as a frightened industry smiles, celebrates and sails full steam ahead while trying to ignore the icebergs in its path. Studio apologists suggest that a stronger slate of film releases later this year (Harry Potter, Pearl Harbor) will solve everything, despite the potential train-wreck impact of looming strikes and the obvious and seething dissatisfaction of much of the mass audience.
This analysis fails to recognize that the most ballyhooed forthcoming films only illustrate the vicious cycle in which the industry has trapped itself. It has become increasingly difficult for motion pictures to command the attention of the American people, and Hollywood's ever-more-desperate attempts to do so lead to ever-more-bloated budgets and outrageous content.
Fifty years ago, studio moguls worried that the advent of television would destroy their business, as the public welcomed a free living-room alternative to weekly trips to the local Bijou. Eventually, Hollywood found ways to co-exist with the tube (despite a nearly 50% reduction in ticket sales) by offering edgier, more visually spectacular entertainment than the bland major networks could deliver at home.
Today, however, the round-the-clock availability of countless alternatives on cable TV, the development of a massive video industry and the proliferation of home-theater systems, soon to be supplemented by digital TV, offer more competition to movie theaters than ever before.
In addition, the explosion of the Internet - now connected to a majority of American homes - and the increasing demands of two-earner families with longer working hours leave prospective consumers more weary and distracted than any time in history. In this situation, it's far more difficult for major movie releases to grab skeptical citizens by the lapels and convince them that they have no choice but to shell out their hard-earned bucks to see some big, new blockbuster event.
As longtime studio head Joe Roth once explained to me: "There's chaos out there - an overload of information. It's like a fog where everything seems fuzzy and indistinct. Our job is to make our product cut through that fog - like a searchlight. We need to come across as the one entertainment alternative that people will notice in all of the pop-culture clutter."
With this strategy in mind, it seems to make sense for producers to spend $20 million or more for the services of some star - no matter how faded or how incompetent - to make their project more recognizable and memorable. This also explains the idiotic addiction to remakes (Planet of the Apes), adaptations of smash hits in other media (Harry Potter, Tomb Raider) and sequels (Hannibal).
With so many alternatives on the entertainment shelf, customers instinctively reach for brand names they recognize. The emphasis on established properties and big-name stars drives the cost of movie-making into the stratosphere, leading to even more expenditures on casting and special effects as "insurance" for return on the already unwieldy investment.
The other means for cutting through the fog - or smog - and seizing the attention of the audience involves controversial content. American Pie, despite its absence of big-name stars, managed to become a conversation piece with its pastry-masturbation scene, while Scary Movie boasted detailed images of male genitalia usually reserved for porn films rated NC-17.
The revolting Hannibal stands as a lamentable example of every negative tendency in today's Hollywood: the reliance on big-name, big-salary stars; the sloppy recycling of an established franchise; and the emphasis on shocking or disgusting content (persuading a victim to eat a piece of his own brain cut out of his opened skull). With this pathetic project, the gamble worked - though the projected box-office total for the film (about $170 million, domestic gross) falls short of initial expectations. The bean counters also ignore the long-term damage on the entire industry from such wretched, oversold fare: Many filmgoers may have been lured to the multiplex to see Hannibal, but then felt so grossed out that they swore they'd stay away from all movies for years. (I know; they write me and call my radio show.)
If nothing else, the transformation of Hollywood's usual season of celebration into a season of sickness and fear should bring a period of soul-searching and retrenchment. If the industry's labor stoppages bring the promised interruption in the production pipeline, perhaps its more thoughtful leaders will take the opportunity to rethink their reliance on overpriced attempts to snatch the spotlight by insulting or assaulting the audience.
A wary community of long suffering filmgoers continues to nurse the
irrational hope that the motion picture industry - despite
disappointments, still a precious piece of our popular culture - will
some day reflect the diversity and fundamental decency of the public it
JWR contributor, author and film critic
Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three
hosts a daily three-hour radio talk show
broadcast in more than 120 cities throughout the United States. His latest book, written together with his wife, is Saving Childhood : Protecting Our Children from the National Assault on Innocence .
You may contact him by clicking here.