Clicking on banner ads keeps JWR alive
Jewish World Review March 16, 2001 / 23 Adar, 5761

Michael Medved

Michael Medved
JWR's Pundits
World Editorial
Cartoon Showcase

Mallard Fillmore

Michael Barone
Mona Charen
Linda Chavez
Ann Coulter
Greg Crosby
Don Feder
Suzanne Fields
James Glassman
Paul Greenberg
Bob Greene
Betsy Hart
Nat Hentoff
David Horowitz
Marianne Jennings
Michael Kelly
Mort Kondracke
Ch. Krauthammer
Lawrence Kudlow
Dr. Laura
John Leo
David Limbaugh
Michelle Malkin
Jackie Mason
Chris Matthews
Michael Medved
Kathleen Parker
Wes Pruden
Sam Schulman
Amity Shlaes
Roger Simon
Tony Snow
Thomas Sowell
Cal Thomas
Jonathan S. Tobin
Ben Wattenberg
George Will
Bruce Williams
Walter Williams
Mort Zuckerman

Consumer Reports

Is Hollywood losing its touch? --
IS Hollywood suffering under the influence of some cosmic curse?

Consider the avalanche of bad news that has begun burying the movie business:

  • In the past 12 months, more than 1,000 screens have shut down in the United States and Canada, with continued closings estimated at the rate of 200 a month. Ten of the largest theater chains in the United States have filed for bankruptcy protection.

  • The number of tickets sold to all movie releases dropped in 1999, then fell sharply again in 2000. This marks the first time in a decade that movie admissions declined two years in a row. Only the inexorable rise in ticket prices - now at a staggering $10 for first-run movies in New York - keeps the "box-office totals" artificially inflated.

  • The Academy Award nominees for best picture represent the weakest field in memory and a source of embarrassment for many movie insiders. With Steve Martin replacing Billy Crystal as host of the Oscar show Sunday, ratings could easily plummet to disastrous levels.

  • A few weeks after the Academy Awards, the motion picture industry faces the near-certainty of devastating strikes - with both the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild threatening to walk out. Resulting production shutdowns could last for months. Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, declares: "A strike would cause such economic devastation, it would make the movie industry a vast wasteland."

  • Elected officials of every political persuasion attack Hollywood's excesses with contemptuous ferocity, and not even generous campaign contributions can silence the chorus of bipartisan criticism.

  • In the midst of these dislocations, the cost of making and marketing movies continues to soar - reaching an average last year of $82.1 million per picture. Always a risky business, film production now presents unprecedented obstacles to attracting - and rewarding - investors.

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 serves.

JWR contributor, author and film critic Michael Medved, a "survivor" of his own family with three kids, 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.

Michael Medved Archives

© 2001, Michael Medved