|There’s a fascinating article in this week’s New Yorker by Louis Menand about the history of the US film industry. It describes what’s happened to the industry since its #1 year, way back in 1946:
So now you know, if you didn’t already, that the ‘box office records’ routinely reported to be broken are all dollar records, and that actual attendance and popularity of films, by any measure, are in a long-term and steep decline.
There is no great conspiracy to dumb down the industry, or to turn out less and less product each year, or to make more sequels and re-releases than original scripts, or to hype films so that most people who go at all rush out to see them before the unpaid critics, and actual movie-goers tell them how bad they really are. It’s a perfect example of the ‘free’ market in action, and the excesses it leads to. Today between 25% and 40% of the total attendance at a new release is rung up in its first weekend. And on average 60% of the revenue comes from overseas, because, well, because there are more people and hence more undiscerning moviegoers overseas. And 35% of movie-theatre revenue comes from overpriced concession food.
The economics of the industry are now such that, in order to make money, you must have a blockbuster that will bring in hundreds of millions in its first weekend. To do that you need to ‘open’ on at least 15,000 screens worldwide, you have to pay at least $50 million in advance marketing worldwide, and you absolutely have to feature one or more of the “handful of stars who can open a movie worldwide”, and pay each of them $25 to $150 million to do so. The margin of error is small, so you cannot risk a failure, and hence every blockbuster must follow a proven formula, like a comic book.
This hyperbolic model would be fine, for those foolish enough to continue to sustain it, if it weren’t for the fact that, as Menand puts it:
Blockbuster dependence is a disease. It sucks the talent and the resources out of every other part of the industry. A contemporary blockbuster could almost be defined as a movie in which production value (sets, costumes, special effects etc.) is in inverse proportion to content. The talent, knowledge and ingenuity required to make just one of the battle scenes in ‘Troy’, or one mindless James Bond chase sequence, would drain the resources of many universities. But why doesn’t anyone put more than two seconds’ thought into the story?
The answer to Menand’s question, of course, is that they don’t have to. Why spend money on a well-crafted story, as director Norman Jewison said when receiving a recent life-time achievement award pleaded the industry to do, when it merely distracts from the ‘production values’ and needlessly reduces the bottom line? Why write a script at all when you can create a movie which makes hundreds of millions of dollars even though the star speaks only 17 lines in two hours of action (Schwarzenneger in Terminator)?
To those that think all this is just envy, Menand tells the cautionary tale of one non-blockbuster that merely attempted to present a good story with a competent ensemble of non-big-name actors, Sideways. This film, #189 of IMDb’s top-rated (by audiences) movies of all time, has been a critical smash as well, but it was made for a mere 16 million dollars, excluding marketing costs, and despite all the help from critics, Oscar nominations and viral marketing, has brought in a mere 22 million dollars in ten weeks. That’s a fifth of the marketing budget alone for each of the Matrix sequels, which brought in half a billion dollars each. [The picture above is a scene from Sideways].
The ‘free’ market has basically determined that if you want to make a quality entertainment product you have to do it as a labour of love, and if you want it to be seen you have to be willing to lose a lot of money on it (which means you need to find someone with both taste and money to underwrite it) or else let it wallow in obscurity, unknown to the millions who would appreciate it if only ‘the market’ would allow it any visibility. In other words, the unrestricted ‘free’ market in entertainment produces less, of lower-quality (according to both critics and customers). In the process, just like everything else in George Bush’s America, innovation is discouraged and a tiny handful of people and corporations get obscenely rich while the rest struggle their whole lives.
And this isn’t true just in the film industry — it’s true of every aspect of the ‘entertainment industry’ in America: Television (remember when we got 39 quality episodes a year of a well-written series like M*A*S*H?), music, publishing, ‘professional’ sports. In each we get less and less product, hyper-marketing, flagrant ‘product placement’, spin-offs and sequels, a dearth of innovation, and a handful of privileged billionaires working alongside millions of starving peers. Blockbuster dependence, thanks to the unhealthy working of the ‘free’ market, is making all of these wonderful trades and crafts into manufacturers of overpriced mediocrity.
The answer is the same as the solution to any other aspect of the economic, political, social or educational system that has become utterly dysfunctional — as producers we need to establish our own parallel industries, and as consumers we need to withhold our money from from the blockbuster industry, walk away from it, stop funding it, and instead direct our business to new enterprises that enable, support and sustain entrepreneurship, innovation and craftsmanship. In the entertainment ‘industry’ that means supporting independent filmmakers, studios, theatres, media, musicians, publishers, and ‘amateur’ sports leagues. It means helping artists break free of the stranglehold of the blockbuster machine by encouraging them with our consumer dollars, and helping them organize a new, quality-oriented network of production and distribution companies.
And it means one more thing, something commonplace (though constantly threatened) in Europe and Canada, but anathema in the US — encouraging government investment in entrepreneurship. We realized in Canada that, being so close to the US and overwhelmed by the hype of its blockbuster entertainment industry, we simply could not compete for the youth market and for space in the bottom-line-oriented movie theatres and the bottom-line-oriented commercial TV stations’ schedules. So we have heavy government investment in our ‘cultural industries’, despite the outrage of America’s NAFTA supporters. The government invests heavily in film and television production, and in supporting the publishing of Canadian musicians and authors. It has quotas on ‘Canadian content’ in the media. And it has whole networks paid for substantially or completely by the taxpayer, with a charter to provide an avenue for Canadian and quality foreign content. It’s not a perfect solution, but the difference between the content quality on Canadian and American television, at least on a per-dollar investment basis, is startling, and a testament to the fact that, as with anything else, a balance between markets and government investment and regulation works better than either an untrammeled ‘free’ market or a government monopoly.
Some of the best US television, like the CSI series, originated with partnerships with Canadian companies that depend on government support, and repay it with extraordinary creativity. It would be nice to believe that indy producers and catalysts like Sundance Institute could compete with the blockbuster industry without substantial government assistance, but the evidence suggests otherwise. The business model is stacked against them. And the US has moved so far right from the days of the New Deal in its conception of the role and value of government that I wouldn’t hold my breath for anyone in power to advocate a government role in funding innovation for anything except military applications. We’ll have to look elsewhere for working models.
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