Mark Harris on the big Hollywood lie
In the movie business, there are several ways to spot a lie. Some involve math: For instance, the sentence ”The movie was great — it was just marketed badly,” which is said every hour in Hollywood, is true exactly 3 percent of the time, whereas ”The movie was bad — it was just marketed really well,” which is almost never said, is true 97 percent of the time. Some lies are formulaic: Anybody in movies who starts a sentence ”At the end of the day…” is clearly revving up the manure spreader. But there’s an even more common lie. The sentence ”We’re just giving the people what they want,” when uttered by a studio executive, is always, always untrue. How can you tell? Easy: There’s no such thing as ”the people.” Not anymore.
Late May is a roller-coastery time in pop culture. In TV, the season has just wrapped; we are near the end of The Sopranos and The Shield and in the middle of Lost and at the beginning of Heroes and Friday Night Lights and The Tudors and, depending upon our tastes, following any number of dark, complicated, challenging, years-long story arcs, assessing and arguing about them every week. It’s a good moment.
Meanwhile, here’s the movie slate in which the studios invested something like $750 million this month: part 3 of a movie based on a comic book. Part 3 of a movie based on a children’s book. And part 3 of a movie based on a Disneyland ride.
Not much of a contest, is it?
This is where ”We’re just giving the people what they want” comes in. It’s the defiant lie told by those who want to pretend that their failures of ambition are your fault — that because ”the people” eat what they’re fed, they must like it. The moneymen behind Spiders of the Shrekibbean brag about meaningless numbers (Spider-Man 3 had the biggest opening weekend of all time!) and shrink from meaningful ones, like the fact that Spider-Man 3 cost more and will likely gross less than the first two. And they start planning Spider-Man 4 because ”the people” want it, and try not to listen to the moviegoers saying ”Ehh, 3 was okay, the second one was better.” Because nothing that anyone says after the movie counts.
Don’t you hate being referred to as ”the people” — as if you were a big mass of grazing cows being herded from one multiplex pasture to the next every week? You don’t hear it in TV anymore, because networks know that we’ve become a niche nation, and we’re going to stay that way. We don’t all like the same shows; we don’t all want to like the same shows. When the most popular (and most people-powered) TV series is American Idol, and three-quarters of households are happily watching something else every time it’s on, talk of ”the people” as a unified entity becomes pointless. (It’s even pointless on Idol itself: Remember when ”the people” decided that they liked Taylor Hicks better than Chris Daughtry, and then months later, when their CDs came out, decided they were only kidding?)
It turns out that not caring about ”the people” is liberating. It frees you to care about your people — the 2 or 5 or 10 million who are passionate about Friday Night Lights or Rescue Me or The Wire or Battlestar Galactica or The Office, who will stay with your show for as long as it’s good, whose enthusiasms and high standards and judgments may even help, indirectly, to make it better.
The problem isn’t with American filmmakers, many of whom are doing exciting work right now (wait until fall), but with mainstream-studio-chief thinking. The people who finance big movies are still pretending they’re doing it for everyone, but the only segment of ”everyone” they’re willing to spend enormous sums of money wooing are 15-to-24-year-old males and little kids (and whomever they drag along). The true translation of ”We’re giving the people what they want” is ”We’re making the only kind of movies we know how to sell, and we’re selling them to the only demographics we know how to sell to.” Everyone else is treated as a minority or special-interest group — including women, who get one or two mid-budget films tossed at them per summer (usually the extent of studio thinking about that half of the population is ”Um…is Angelina Jolie available?”), and ”old people” (in Hollywood, that means all Americans 35 and over), who are brushed off until well after Labor Day.
Will Hollywood notice how many of ”the people” are staying home? Not yet — not as long as there are self-serving ways of tabulating actual ticket sales and another biggest weekend of all time! around every corner. But if the studios don’t figure out that ”the people” are a lot more diverse than their movies, they’re in for some bad news. Thirty-seven percent (according to a 2006 MPAA study) of Americans now feel that ”the ultimate movie-watching experience” resides not in a theater but in their own living rooms. That number is going to grow. As it does, maybe the studios will finally have to think about who ”the people” actually are — and what we really want.