Pants on the ground
Pants on the ground
Lookin’ like a fool with yo pants on the ground
-- "General" Larry Platt --
A reader, Brenda B., asks about one of the greatest mysteries of our times:
Why are American movies so stupid?
I would rephrase the question: As with all arts, movies have an engine with four cylinders. Yet Hollywood is bound and determined to run on only one. Why?
For decades, my friend Joe had a newspaper column that reviewed movies. His entire life was built around films; he was a walking encyclopedia of names, faces, places. He could tell you not only what a gaffer is but which ones worked on what films. Suddenly, in the late 1980s, he quit. I asked him what happened.
Joe´s answer: into the 1940s, Hollywood was a major destination point for European artists seeking refuge from World Wars I and II. These immigrants were exquisitely trained in the fine arts. They knew how to frame a shot, tell a story, how to produce, to dance and sing, how to act, write screenplays and jokes. They hung out with Picasso and Monet; they had worked with Diaghilev, Debussy, Giacometti, Nijinsky, Conrad, Camus.
Joe looked despondently at the floor. "The inevitable happened. All the European masters retired or died. For the first time in history, American movies became truly American movies. The result is a complete disaster."
Joe´s thesis is probative. I had the privilege to meet a few foreign masters. Not to worry: they could draw your portrait or write your resume -- but wouldn´t. A celebrated Hungarian couple offered to give me voice lessons at a reduced rate. Being a typical 15-year-old jiver, I foolishly turned them down.
Brenda B., you piqued my curiosity. I decided to investigate further the stupid-movie phenomenon. Unless otherwise indicated, the data that follow come from The Hollywood Economist by Jay Epstein. It is indispensable for everybody who wants to know why American movies are, well, the way they are.
* * *
First, a few disquieting facts for big screen lovers.
In 1929, 95 million Americans on average went to movies every week. That was about 80% of the ambulatory population. Today, weekly moviegoers are down to 30 million, which is less than 10% of the population.
You don´t have to look far to find the cause of the astonishing disappearance. It is in your living room. In 1948, when TV was rare, theaters sold 4.6 billion tickets. A mere ten years later, when most homes had TV, theaters sold only 2 billion tickets.
Behind the free-fall in ticket sales was a revolution in American habits. In 2009, only 2% of Americans went to the movies on a given day, but 90% of them watched TV.
Hollywood has a golden rule: ´tis better to switch than fight. It joined the trend to TV by going the home entertainment route. In 1948, theater ticket sales provided 100% of studio revenues. In 2007, theater sales provided only 20%, home entertainment 80%.
Big screen versus small screen: the big screen is losing on all scorecards. Personally, I don´t want the big screen to go the way of the Edsel and Swissair. I saw "Psycho" in a dark movie theater and on TV at home. Simply put, it was not the same movie.
Think back to 1929. Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night could stay 95 million folks from their appointed rounds at local movie theaters. The reason was going to a movie was more than going to a movie; it was an event, frequently a family affair.
Think now about how those 95 million shrunk to 30 million today. 65 million regular theatergoers gone with the wind.
Hollywood had to change or perish. As mentioned, it went the home entertainment route. But Tinsel Town also did something else -- something fateful:
With the loss of 65 million dependable theatergoers, Hollywood had no alternative but to start from scratch with each film and manufacture an audience for it. For major releases, that manufacturing takes place mostly via ads on TV (where else?). Epstein notes that the manufactured audience not only (i) has to be easy to reach (congregates around certain TV programs) but also (ii) "could be induced by this blitz" to leave home and go to a movie. (iii) Thirdly, the audience had to be consumers of the products of merchandizing partners who pay for "tie-ins" -- i.e., junk food and junk toys. (iv) Finally, it would help if the audience needs massive transfusions of popcorn and soda. They are how theaters make most of their profit -- not ticket sales.
Teenagers fill the bill on all four counts. As of 2009, over 70% of the audience that went to widely released movies was under 21. Gender, too, is crucial. Women´s libbers, take note: guess who decides which opening weekend movie to attend. The TV ads, as Epstein says, had to "hook male teens. The movies that filled that bill were action films laden with special effects, explosions, crashes and mayhem."
Hollywood´s last word: family affair -- begone! Male teens only! It is a message that is as true as it is limited -- and limiting. It is where stupid enters the picture. Not only stupid; the industry is financially alive but not well. Been to a movie theater lately on a week night? Did you look around at all those empty seats and wonder? A four-cylinder engine firing on only one cylinder coughs, sputters, can´t make it up hills; it eventually stalls.
We will discuss how Hollywood´s obsession with male teens condemns it to being a one-cylinder affair. For now I must note that many readers will hotly dispute our view that Hollywood is sputtering. They may even point to a report that 2012 was a record-breaking year for Hollywood. Box office ticket sales raked in $10.7 billion, without increasing ticket prices. International sales were even more positive: "grosses almost tripled from $8.1 billion in 2001 to $22.4 billion in 2011." Impressive, no?
No -- not really. Those figures must be put in perspective. Picture in your mind´s eye the intimidating front gates and portentous emblems of Warner Brothers, Columbia Pictures, Paramount, MGM, Disney, Universal, Sony, Tri-star, Miramax, United Artists. Then, toss in every other Hollywood studio. Sorry, incorrigible movie fans and big cheese producers, loud mouth agents and big shot actors, but a single nonmovie company founded in 1976 beat the pants off all Hollywood companies combined.
In 2011, Apple Computer reported yearly revenues of $108 billion.
Call yourself a cool cat, yeah, lookin’ like a fool
Walkin’, talkin’ with your pants on the ground
-- "General" Larry Platt --
* * *
Other than TV, what ails the big screen?
No doubt many readers will attribute the stupid-movie phenomenon to a decline in intelligence and education of the American people -- the rise of the DDDUUUAAA generation. Well, if 80% of the population in 1929 went to movies once per week, that meant the demographic composition of moviegoers was close to that of the general population. Among the ticket buyers were old and young; Ph.D.'s and illiterates; industry captains and fruit pickers; males and females; rich and poor; everything in between. "Gone With The Wind" (1939), "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940), "Citizen Kane" (1941), "Casablanca" (1942), "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre" (1948): can you imagine what it must have been like writing and making a movie in those days for a truly general audience -- one that represented America? To boot, you had foreign masters helping you. It was a universe away from the All-American, male teen-obsessed flick of today.
Some other explanations of the movie theater crisis:
1. The high cost of going to the movies. Let´s look at a few out-of-pocket expenses:
The average movie ticket in 1929 cost 35 cents. In 2009, the cost was about $7.00. Using a CPI calculator, a dollar in 1929 had the same buying power as $13.60 today. Conclusion: movie tickets cost more than they used to where it counts -- purchasing power -- but the increase isn't as much as it appears. Regarding baby sitters: assuming they are paid the minimum wage, there was no minimum wage until 1938 -- 25 cents per hour. Using the CPI calculator, one dollar in 1938 had the same purchasing power as $16.49 today. So, to all you bean counters out there: your intuition is on track. Baby sitters cost more than they used to; however, the increase isn´t as much as it seems at first blush. While we're at it, let's consider the price of popcorn at the movies. In 1929, it was 5 cents a bag -- the equivalent of 62 cents today. Surprise -- a small popcorn now costs $4.75. And you thought babysitting and ticket prices had soared out of sight.
2. Dirty theaters and uncivil crowds. All I can say is, when you target male teenagers, guess what you're going to have on your hands. Or on top of your heads. I remember a guy whose "thing" was to lean over the edge of the balcony, emit a loud vomit sound, and pour cans of creamed corn onto the flabbergasted patrons below.
3. Prior to the 1950s, if people wanted to see news in moving images, they had to go to movie theaters. Which raises this question: what do people want today that only theaters can supply? (There is an air of desperation surrounding this question; Paramount is experimenting with $50.00 megatickets.) Big screens obviously don´t fill the bill; neither does $4.75 popcorn. The solution is worth megabucks. In 1929, there were over 23,000 movie theaters in America; today, only a third of that number remains. In thousands of cities and towns, the last picture show was more than a movie.
4. A fourth and final explanation of the big screen die-off: the profusion of ads in movie theaters. I suspect the infestation is both a cause and consequence of the weak/weaker/weakest theatergoer market. The loss of money represented by thousands of empty seats simply has to be made up somehow. In 2007, ads generated $456 million, a buck or two per theatergoer.
The rise of TV; the reduction of movies to male teens; higher prices, unruly audiences and dirty theaters; no unique offering such as news; a plague of ads: all are causes of the vanishing theatergoer. Yet despite them all, an amazing fact remains:
Opening weekend moviegoers STILL can make or break a film. Hollywood knows this, which is why it shells out an average of $36 million per film in ads designed to herd teens into theaters on opening weekends.
Is there a way to replace the traditional, opening-weekend theater launch with an equivalent promotional event? If somebody can find it and put it in place they would revolutionize Hollywood. I think the technology for that revolution already exists; it is called the Internet. The post-1948 change from a general audience to male teenagers could change again -- back to a general audience coupled with special niche audiences (more on this subject shortly). The male teenager -- or rather Hollywood´s perception of him -- would be dethroned as the dictator of taste, of which movies will and will not be made. For those who are less charitable: the kid with his pants on the ground and cap turned sideways would cease to be the unassailable censor.
Or would he? It all depends on which teenager you have in mind...
* * *
I think we have partially and provisionally answered the question, why are American movies so stupid, i.e., one-cylinder affairs? But a second question presents itself: what is a "quality" movie?
The psychoanalyst Carl Jung observed that the human psyche has four ways of functioning: thinking, feeling, sensation, and intuition. As mentioned, Hollywood is targeting male teenagers. No doubt about it: that group's primary function is sensation. The upshot: movies are sensation-centered -- special effects, explosions, car crashes, mayhem.
The problem is Hollywood´s focus on sensation has become excessive to the point of either pushing out entirely the other three functions or reducing them to pop-up jelly-filled emanations warm from the toaster.
The confinement of movies to sensations is what we mean when we say Hollywood is running on only one cylinder.
A "quality" movie (e.g., "The Wizard of Oz"), on the other hand, runs on all four cylinders. Contrary to what Hollywood believes, a quality movie does not turn off male teens. It does not exclude them because it has sensations, plenty of them. However, a quality movie also has thinking, feeling, and intuition.
The potential audience expands exponentially when all four cylinders are up and running. If they are properly timed, you no longer have a movie; you have a phenomenon:
Let´s take an example not from the movie world but from novels, which have a longer track record.* Literary agents, publishers and authors bray and crow whenever they have a book that sells a million copies. Well, gentlemen, the top three best-selling novels of all times for which there are reliable sales data are A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of The Rings, and The Little Prince. They proved the existence of a potential, gigantic market far beyond anything you ever imagined, much less considered: each of those books sold over 140 million copies. They reached and energized that wider audience because they included all four functions. They literally had something for everybody.
Hollywood will leap to its feet and strenuously object. It has a particularly hard time with the thinking function. Studio CEOs and executives -- alias The Suits -- will smirk and knowingly inform you that movies are a bad medium for intellectual discussions or philosophical subtleties. Unlike a book on your desk, which can be browsed and backtracked and reread at your leisure, with a movie you must get the point the first time around; otherwise, you have to sit through the entire film twice, maybe more.
The Suits` argument sounds reasonable -- but is it? In 1995, it was overtaken by technology. The next time somebody hands you the first-time-around argument, hand them a DVD. Ask if they need help finding the pause and reverse buttons.
But even without the rise of home entertainment, Hollywood´s steadfast opposition to the thinking function is rubbish. Let´s go straight to a point that heretofore has remained latent, implicit:
MUST teen films be stupid?
Clearly, Hollywood thinks so. Just look at what is playing in a theater near you.
Well, Mr. and Ms. Suit, your industry´s history shows otherwise:
Millions of years from now, the sun will heat up, then die. "The familiar constellations that illuminate our night will seem as they have always seemed, eternal, unchanged and little moved by the shortness of time between our planet's birth and its demise." That stunning, vintage existentialist statement comes not from Sartre or Camus, Kafka or Kierkegaard, but from "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), one of the granddaddies of all teen flicks. I heard the planetarium dialogue as a pre-teenager; it went way over my head, but -- and this is where Hollywood has it wrong -- that fact did not spoil "Rebel" for me. On the contrary, a light turned on.
The other granddaddy teen flick, "Blackboard Jungle," also came out in 1955. Its classroom discussion of the dramaturgy of Jack and The Beanstalk rivals anything you'll hear in a European university. But "Blackboard" didn't stop there. Its soundtrack ushered in rock and roll. If you're into symbolism, when the teenagers smashed their teacher's beloved record collection, that was exactly what was happening across America. "How Much is That Doggy in The Window?" (Patti Page) was going/going/gone. "It´s Cherry-Pink and Apple-Blossom White" in one week faded to black, replaced by "Heartbreak Hotel." "Shrimp Boats Is A-Comin'" (Jo Stafford) -- sorry, Jo, shrimp boats was a-goin'. American music never went back. "Blackboard" was more than a blackboard; it was the writing on the wall.
Those two movies -- as well as "Gone With The Wind" and the other classics mentioned above -- were created and released in a different world. Not only were the foreign masters still alive and working, but also the political system created by the Founding Fathers, which was not the oligarchic system of today, was still in place (see below). Those two realities enabled "Rebel" and "Blackboard" to found something unprecedented in human history: a youth culture, a place where all youth but only youth were admitted. They were intuitive, intelligent movies with solid screenplays, directors, actors. Had they been stupid, you wouldn't be reading this post.
Intelligent movies. They are not called block-busters for nothing.
* * *
$36 million: that´s what Hollywood coughs up to promote the typical major release movie with ads on TV. And those megabucks are only the beginning. Along with market budgets, production budgets have skyrocketed in recent years. Studios literally can no longer afford to take a deep-end gamble (or so they believe.) For that matter, you -- I too -- would be tempted to play it safe and go with a tried-and-true formula.
As for new ideas and innovations, forget it. The Suits literally cannot hear them; they have "Cutthroat Island" and "John Carter" ringing in their ears.
Hollywood´s rising fear of risk explains something you see every day. You can´t leave home -- or stay home -- without it:
Obviously, something that comes with a built-in audience is less risky, which is why movies today are subsumed in comic book characters, 80s TV show regurgitations, remakes, sequels, as well as theme park, action figure and board game adaptations. This year´s offering of Superman, "Man of Steel," and the bombardment of TV ads promoting it this very minute are a perfect case study. (June 19th post script: so, did the TV ad blitz et al pay off? You bet. "Forbes" summarized Superman´s weekend take of $128 million as "pretty terrific but not all that surprising.")
All of which is to say that Hollywood is easily bated by the somewhat reliable but skimpier, short end buck. By that I mean: with a few minor but profound changes, Hollywood could consistently reach the potential gigantic audience mentioned above.
For stratospheric sales to occur, however, all four human functions must be in play. And that poses a grave problem...
* * *
Is a movie-maker with a 4-cylinder film in mind, i.e., one that is not in the male teen slamb-bang genre, pursuing a project born in a coffin?
We know Hollywood´s answer.
Let´s rephrase the issue in strategic and tactical terms: is it possible to overthrow the male teen despotism and capsize the stupid movie phenomenon? If Hollywood had the answer, it could reach the gigantic potential audience and beat the financial pants off Apple Computer.
To stop the nonstop flow of retinal junk food, two problems must be addressed:
1. As mentioned, the opening weekend movie ritual must be replaced by another less costly but pivotal, promotional event. The technology for that event already exists: the Internet. Yet Hollywood to date has turned a blind eye to computers two feet in front of it. Why? Odd... We will explore this question in a moment.
2. Home entertainment created a door to an entirely new possibility in the world: high quality and highly profitable TV movies for niche audiences. Concurrently, movie theaters would be freed up to show movies for general audiences, exactly as in the pre1950s era when those audiences were the rule, not the exception. (Hollywood, beware: they were a lot more than a big green "G" plastered on the screen.)
So, what are The Suits waiting for? Why won´t they open the door?
To the contrary of everything it claims, Hollywood is tone-deaf to demographics. For anybody who understands survey research (note: I taught polling at a university level and conducted/analyzed polls for political candidates for over 20 years), the methodology employed by the firms that assemble small sample audiences to view movies for later release (known as screening), is laughable.**
I won´t belabor the point. A glance at who is assembled to form the small test groups will tell you everything you need to know. The demographics are phony because they are tautological, i.e., the assumptions -- notably that movies must first and foremost satisfy male teens -- are the conclusions; the conclusions, the assumptions.
The real purpose of these panels of prearranged peoplem, then, is not to learn but to legitimize what is already in place. Reality has a nasty habit of getting in the way of such artifices. "Cutthroat Island," "John Carter," "The Alamo," "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Sahara," "Mars Needs Moms," "The 13th Warrior" -- all $130 million-plus losers made after 1994 -- did not happen on their own. They needed help -- and got it.
As for real demographics:
According to the Census bureau, the core of male teenagers (aged 15-19) numbered 11 million in 2010. For the sake of argument let´s expand that core to include males aged 20-24 -- another 11 million.
22 million young male theatergoers, then, are for whom Hollywood makes movies. So, is that number a lot or a little?
The same census report notes that in 2010, there were 50 million Americans aged 62 and over. Which is greater, 22 million or 50 million? Mr. and Ms. Suit, if you don´t know the answer, ask the neighborhood 10-year-old kid walking the dog; he/she will be happy (maybe) to help you.
For obvious reasons, elderly Americans today are not prominent movie theatergoers. The simple truth, however, is that home entertainment has made possible what was impossible, indeed conceivable, for more than 70 years: profitable home movies can now be made for the plus-60 audience. That truth will grow as the baby-boom generation ages. Already, the change is visible: from 2000 to 2010, the group aged 45-64 grew 31%; the group 62 and over increased by 21%.
In contrast, the group aged 5-44 grew by less than 3%.
Thanks to home entertainment, the elderly are only one of numerous niche movie audiences out there which are now accessible to Hollywood. One example: 21.2 million of Americans have a condition limiting basic physical activities, such as walking, climbing stairs, reaching, lifting, or carrying.
* * *
Our discussion of stupid movies revealed three interrelated strange contradictions:
(I) Let´s start with our original question: as with all arts, movies have an engine with 4 cylinders. Yet Hollywood stubbornly insists on running on only one. Why?
(ii) In the light of the Internet, Hollywood´s opening weekend ritual for movies is outmoded and outdated -- a living fossil. Yet Hollywood remains an erstwhile practitioner of and true believer in the ritual. Why does Hollywood here -- of all places -- break its own golden rule, ´tis better to switch than fight?
(iii) The rise of home entertainment and explosive growth of the population over 60 years old put megabucks within an arm´s reach of Hollywood studios. Yet they stubbornly refuse to reach out and take them. Why?
In brief, everything is in place for the revolution that everybody (except male teens) is waiting for. Yet Hollywood obstinately refuses to push the start button. Why?
We come back to my friend Joe´s thesis offered at the beginning of this post.
If Joe is right, with the retirement and death of the European artist immigrants to Hollywood, even if it wanted to, Hollywood today is incapable to running on all four cylinders. It doesn´t have the talent, training, discipline, education, intellectual depth, life experiences. And that means Hollywood is incapable of reaching the potential gigantic audience ready, willing, and waiting ... waiting ...
Even if it wanted to. Why those words?
I decided to save the worst for last.
We arrive, finally, at what may be the bubbling core of the stupid movie syndrome. It was exposed by a man who knew far more than anybody reading these words -- as well as I who am writing them -- will ever know about the American entertainment industry: Rod Serling.
One balmy Saturday afternoon, Serling delivered a lecture, "The Old Grad Syndrome," to a packed house. When the time for questions came, up jumped the devil:
"Why are TV programs so stupid?"
I swear I heard a pin drop.
Serling didn´t blink. His answer:
Hollywood executives will tell you they are only behaving in the best tradition of democracy -- giving the American people what it wants. In their never-ending quest to truly represent the majority, the executives will also tell you that at great expense they collect top-flight-up-to-the-minute information about America´s tastes and dislikes and preferences and expectations, its totems and taboos. That information comes from thousands of scientific public opinion polls, screenings, census data. Through it all, objective quantitative analysis is the order of the day.
All of which is a lie.
Serling claimed in no uncertain terms that what is on TV is the parade of the personal tastes, fantasies, and caprices of the top corporate elite of America. In a word, you are seeing on TV what they want to see on TV.
I know what I like, the men at the top will tell you; actually, they like what they know. I am the market remains their unshakeable mantra. In America, that is tantamount to saying: I am God.
Well, if the oligarchs are right, here is what is going on inside God´s head:
"Hogan´s Heroes": Gosh a-mighties, them concentration camps and Nazi guards was more fun than a barrel of monkeys! "I Dream of Jeannie": That Barbara Eden sure is beautiful! Ya´ reckon if we sponsor the show, I could ... well ... you know ...
The generation of TV executives and corporate sponsors Serling knew and criticized is no longer with us. But it makes no difference. When those grandfathers and great-grandfathers of today´s oligarchs pulled the plug on "Playhouse 90," they pulled the plug on four-cylinder programs in the mass media in general. Down the tube -- then, down the hatch.
Today´s movies and TV programs continue to display the puerile and prurient interests of the richest 5% of Americans. Otherwise stated: all day every day, the oligarchs´ inner adolescent is being projected onto screens in theaters and homes around the world. As always, 100% unconcious.
May 25, 2013. A day that made history. At the Life Ball in Vienna, Barbara Eden, dressed in her Jeannie outfit, introduced her "master." Out from behind the curtain stepped freshly-minted oligarch, Bill Clinton. Estimated new worth: 38 million -- nearly twice that of George W. Bush. What had been latent finally became manifest. What Rod Serling diagnosed over 40 years ago was now in full view.
And you thought today´s generation of teenagers was the only one with pants on the ground.
* * *
If Rod Serling was right, the remedy is as simple as it is hard. Dethroning the male teenager -- inner as well as outer -- as the dictator and censor of movies and TV programs = dethroning the American oligarchy. Regular readers of this blog know our position in that regard:
The First American Revolution, 1776-1789, transformed the political system from a British colonial monarchy not into a democracy but rather a “политей” or polity, i.e., a middle class-moderated, oligarchy/democracy hybrid inclined toward democracy. The Second American Revolution, 2008-2009, changed the polity into an oligarchy with democratic residues, accessories. That change was normal and predictable; Aristotle analyzed it 2000 years ago. The Third American Revolution will resurrect the polity but with far greater power for democracy, far less for the oligarchy.***
The American oligarchy gave the final world to the male teenager. We give it "General" Larry Platt:
Walkin’ downtown with your pants on the ground
Get it up, hey, get your pants off the ground
*For the record, the top Hollywood money-maker, adjusted for inflation, is “Gone With The Wind,” a four-cylinder production.
**Even Nielsen, the best known of the mass media audience analysts, has slab-dab methodology. For a sample Nielsen report, click here. Take note that they define moviegoer as "someone having attended at least one movie in a theater in the past 12 months." According to that definition, 70% of Americans are moviegoers. That category is too inclusive to allow for meaningful distinctions, which is why it has next to zero explanatory power. Also, take note that Nielsen´s interviews were conducted "online, phone, and in-person surveys." I don´t like to tell you, Nielsen, but somebody has to: you polled the wrong population. Moviegoing is an activity, not a response given over the phone or on the Internet. To poll the right population you must physically go to a representative sample (not easily drawn, I can assure you) of movie theaters and interview only people who have actually exited movies.
***For a more extensive discussion of this subject, see this blog: The Big Movida: The Third American Revolution.