Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Deluded Hollywood

Over the past year or so, I've seen the generalization creeping around that ticket sales for movies are down, and that therefore the movie business is in trouble. The movie industry seems to like to blame computer downloading, which seems odd to me although I'm not wild about downloading myself; others -- particularly those on the cultural Right -- blame the moviemakers. The most common refrain is: "Well, Hollywood, if you want to have your ticket sales go up again, make movies that people want to see!" Here's a variant of it, as posted by Steven Den Beste a while back (navigate to post dated 12-15-05):

When will Hollywood get the message that if you want to sell a lot of tickets, you have to give the audience something it's willing to pay to see? Especially all those neanderthal Christians (ugh!) in fly-over country?

The idea is that at long, long last American moviegoers have decided to vote with their dollars, and anti-Christian movies just aren't going to be supported anymore. That's why The Chronicles of Narnia is a success, according to SDB: it's a Christian allegory and people really want Christian movies, while Brokeback Mountain is a gay-themed movie, and "Peoria and Nashville and Des Moines just aren't interested in LGBT-themed films".

And earlier than that, on SDB had opined thusly: "What I'd love to see, and quite frankly what I expect, is that The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will make a fortune at the box office and Brokeback Mountain will turn out to be a dud. Wouldn't that be nice?" One wonders why he's so emotionally invested in this. The answer is, of course, a kind of bizarre tribalism at work in which Brokeback Mountain is not being touted because it's a good movie -- despite the near unanimity of critics saying that it is -- but because anything pro-gay coming from Hollywood is, apparently, some kind of example of political correctness at work. This would be a lot more convincing if Brokeback Mountain hadn't spent almost a decade in development hell, bouncing from studio to studio, facing such hurdles as lining up actors who were actually willing to play the leads. You'd think that Hollywood's intention to cram LGBT stuff down "Flyover Country"'s throats would operate more efficiently.

Equally ludicrous is the idea that the Narnia film constitutes an example of what can be done if the Christian movie-going public is taken seriously. Does anyone really think that Narnia got made because of its Christian allegorical street cred? Or did it get made because Disney looked around and saw Fox making money with the Star Wars prequels and New Line making tons of money with The Lord of the Rings and Warners making tons of money with Harry Potter, and said, "Hmmmm, what we need is a franchise, boys. And here's a beloved series of fantasy novels just waiting for big-screen, epic CGI effects treatment, just like all those other franchises."

(And while we're on the subject, is it really fair to say that The Passion of the Christ never found a studio because it was a Christian movie, and that's it? Does that make sense? Imagine you're a studio exec, in charge of picking up projects, and in walks a director with two credits to his name -- one of which won lots of awards but did unremarkable domestic box office, and the other of which also did unremarkable box office despite some critical acclaim -- who tells you he wants to make an extremely graphic and violent film about the final hours of Jesus's life, and he wants all the dialogue in this movie of his to be in Aramaic, and at the time, he's even kicking around the idea of not having subtitles at all. Do you greenlight this project? Well, if you say "No", history has already proven you wrong -- but then, you're in good company, along with all the guys who thought that a mythology-driven space opera wouldn't have any kind of audience in 1977 or that a movie about a Civil War officer who goes out to the prairie and "finds himself" with the Indians would amount to nothing in 1990 or the dude who thought that of course another Julie Andrews musical after Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music would be box office gold.)

"Why doesn't Hollywood just make movies that people want to see?"

Well, there are two answers to that. One is very simple: Hollywood does make movies that people want to see. Maybe ticket sales are down, but buying a ticket isn't the only way to see a movie anymore, and it may be that what we're witnessing isn't so much a slump on the part of the makers of filmed entertainment but the movie theater losing its lustre as the preferred means of enjoying filmed entertainment. I probably see as many movies per year as I did ten years ago, but the huge difference is that I see far fewer of them in the theater. Ask yourself this simple question: How often do you see new movies come out and, as you're reading the reviews in the paper, make a mental note to keep an eye out for it on DVD? Theater going nowadays constitutes a much greater investment of time and money than it did ten years ago, between ticket prices and concessions being way up on the money end and the twenty minutes plus of preliminary stuff that's tacked onto movies on the time end. It used to be that a date of dinner and a movie could start at 5:30 and end around 9:30. Nowadays, dinner and a movie has to start closer to 5:00 or even earlier, and ends much closer to 11:00.

But I'm seeing DVDs for sale everywhere, and every time I go into Blockbuster and the video section at The Store, all the big-name new releases are always out of stock. Anecdotal, yes, but if Hollywood isn't making movies that people want to see, how is it that everybody I know has seen the latest movies? I often hear people say, "I never go to the movies anymore", but that doesn't mean that they're not seeing movies.

The second answer is a bit more complicated: it's that Hollywood is making movies that people want to see, but it does so haphazardly, almost accidentally. Returning to The Passion of the Christ: would anyone have been surprised if it had flopped? Probably not -- and many, if not most, of the biggest hits in film history have been surprise hits. As William Goldman wrote in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade:

The "go" decision is the ultimate importance of the studio executive. They are responsible for what gets up there on the silver screen. Compounding their problem of no job security in the decision-making process is the single most important fact, perhaps, of the entire movie industry:


Nobody knows what's going to be a hit, and nobody knows what's going to be a flop, and since that's the case, it's kind of hard to justify the idea that the movie companies would be rolling in the money if only they'd just look at what was popular the year before and make more movies just like that.

For one thing, movie making takes time: Narnia and Brokeback Mountain were both almost certainly in preproduction already when Passion of the Christ was still in theaters. Even if there's some great lesson to be learned from that film's success, it would take at least two or three years to show up in the types of films being put out by the studios. That Narnia was marketed by Disney to the churchgoing public is a consequence of The Passion's success, but the fact that it got made at all is not. (And besides, we're talking Disney here -- behind that wholesome mouse lurks one of the most cynical corporations of all time, when it comes to marketing.)

For another, too often the lessons are contradictory. Sure, Passion made a ton of money. But how did other recent Christian movies do? I didn't know that Luther had been made until my church held a screening. Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie flopped. The Omega Code never enjoyed any kind of widespread release -- but wouldn't the evangelicals flocking to it have been noticed? Not if they never flocked to it to begin with. The animated film The Prince of Egypt, which told the tale of Moses and the Exodus (and told it well -- I did see that one in the theater) did pretty well, but its results weren't that dramatic.

I'm always confused when people insist that there's some great, untapped market out there -- whether it's for Christian films, or good "family" films, or whatever. I'm always confused because there are almost always films available that would appeal to these particular untapped markets, and these movies always slip away, unnoticed. It took video for The Iron Giant to become beloved, just to cite one example. (And going beyond just family or Christian movies, think of The Shawshank Redemption. I'm not sure if I know a single person who hasn't seen it, and yet, it tanked horribly at the box office.)

In Hollywood, nobody knows anything. There's no guarantee that making a bunch of Christian-themed movies, in the vein of The Passion of the Christ, is going to elevate ticket sales at all. It's a pleasant notion for those who like to take the "Them versus Us" approach to cultural debates, but it's a notion that's sadly lacking in evidence supporting it.

I note that the other day, Roger Ebert handled this exact issue in his "Answer Man" column. I quote Mr. Ebert:

Q. If this was such a great year for movies, why are box-office receipts so far down from last year, even though admission prices are at an all-time high? Do you feel that there is such a growing disconnect between Hollywood and America that Hollywood had better wake up or face serious consequences? (Cal Ford, Corsicana, Texas)

A (Ebert): No, I don't, because the "box-office slump" is an urban myth that has been tiresomely created by news media recycling one another. By mid-December, according to the Hollywood Reporter, receipts were down between 4 percent and 5 percent from 2004, a record year when the totals were boosted by Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, which grossed $370 million. Many of those tickets were sold to people who rarely go to the movies. 2005 will eventually be the second or third best year in box-office history. Industry analyst David Poland at moviecitynews.com has been consistently right about this non-story.

And finally, here's an article by a religion reporter arguing that, contra atheist SDB, Hollywood actually does not despise Christianity.

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