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Monday, March 7, 2011

Why Hollywood is a Term of Disparagement

The title of this post is taken from a 1947 essay by the British Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), an essay Waugh published in the London Daily Telegraph after a frustrating sojourn in Hollywood unsuccessfully pursuing the prospect of a film version of his best-selling 1945 novel, Brideshead Revisited. Not surprisingly, given his title, Waugh’s essay is a stinging indictment of the film industry in Hollywood. His chief complaint is that Hollywood makes movies to please everyone at once:

A film costs about $2,000,000. It must please 20,000,000 people. The film industry has accepted the great fallacy of the Century of the Common Man…that a thing can have no value for anyone which is not valued by all. In the old days a play which ran 100 nights was a success, a book which sold 5,000 copies might influence a generation. Even now a writer who sells more than 20,000 copies, instead of being elated, begins to wonder what has gone wrong with his work. But a film must please everyone.

It’s interesting to compare Waugh’s essay to a recent essay by Mark Harris in GQ, “The Day the Movies Died.” Both Waugh and Harris declare that Hollywood has reached its artistic nadir. Both complain of Hollywood’s habit of making movies to please everyone (Harris uses the modern idiom of the “4-quadrant movie,” i.e., the movie that pleases men, women, the young, the old). But something happened with the economics of Hollywood in the 60+ years between these two essays. The drive to make movies to please everyone has been replaced by a far narrower concern. Women, so Harris argues, are increasingly considered a niche audience. Those born before 1985 are considered ancient and “more likely…to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie….”

“That leaves one quadrant,” writes Harris,

men under 25—at whom the majority of studio movies are aimed, the thinking being that they’ll eat just about anything that’s put in front of them as long as it’s spiked with the proper set of stimulants. That’s why, when you look at the genres that currently dominate Hollywood—action, raunchy comedy, game/toy/ride/comic-book adaptations, horror, and to add an extra jolt of Red Bull to all of the preceding categories, 3-D—they’re all aimed at the same ADD-addled, short-term-memory-lacking, easily excitable testosterone junkie. In a world dominated by marketing, it was inevitable that the single quadrant that would come to matter most is the quadrant that’s most willing to buy product if it’s mediocre.

(Harris is joined in this argument about the importance of immature young men to Hollywood by Edward J. Epstein in The Hollywood Economist.)

Yet this shrinking of Hollywood’s concern from 4 quadrants to 1 is due to the same impulse. Waugh calls it “the principle of universal appeal.” In light of today’s Hollywood economics, it might better be termed the principle of trying to please as many people as possible with the majority of its products (understanding that it’s always more possible to please the young and undiscerning). There are reasons for Hollywood to want to do this, of course, not the least of which being the need to offset enormous production costs. But would there be such enormous production costs if Hollywood were not focusing, in the first place, on spectacles for easily excitable testosterone junkies?

Interestingly, both Waugh and Harris arrive at the same lament. They both name the biggest casualty of Hollywood’s perennial desire to please: movies for grown-ups. “As recently as 1993,” notes Harris, “three kid-oriented genres—animated movies, movies based on comic books, and movies based on children’s books—represented a relatively small percentage of the overall film marketplace; that year they grossed about $400 million combined (thanks mostly to Mrs. Doubtfire) and owned just a single spot in the year’s top ten. In 2010, those same three genres took in more than $3 billion and by December represented eight of the year’s top nine grossers.” Harris reflects dolefully on all of this:

Let me posit something: that’s bad. We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific, but the degree to which children’s genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays. 

Waugh was saying the same thing over sixty years ago when he said that Hollywood cannot value anything that cannot be valued by all. Now it would be too much to say that Hollywood is no longer capable of grown-up fare—the recent successes of The King’s Speech and The Social Network give the lie to such a view. But taken together, Waugh’s and Harris’s essays remind us that Hollywood has a long habit of spending far too much time and money on trying to titillate crowds with mindless spectacle.   


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