Why (Most) Movies Suck

The market totalitarians who call themselves “conservatives” are messing their drawers over the very idea of adding $50 million to the laughably puny $145-million annual budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. “Conservatives,” you see, say they think the NEA is a boondoggle.

Contrast this sense of where boondoggles come from with the excellent recent reportage of New Yorker critic Tad Friend on the workings of the corporate capitalist movie studios — where $50 million, by the way, is less than half of what gets spent there on a single movie, a.k.a. “property,” according to Friend.

As Friend reports:

“Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,” one studio’s president of production says. “So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross.

This, of course, means that:

Marketing considerations shape not only the kind of films studios make but who’s in them—gone are lavish adult dramas with no stars, like the 1982 “Gandhi.”

Even within this situation, which is well-known to industry insiders, if not the general public, there is no doubt what corporate capitalist movies are:

Marketers and filmmakers are often quietly at war. “The most common comment you hear from filmmakers after we’ve done our work is ‘This is not my movie,’ ” Terry Press, a consultant who used to run marketing at Dreamworks SKG, says. “I’d always say, ‘You’re right—this is the movie America wants to see.’ ”

Friend finds the resulting imperatives “unexpected,” but nonetheless does a great job listing them. Note how they all express the standard tactics from big business marketing — flattery of the audience, racist restriction of non-white persons from centrality in portrayals, pandering to gender stereotypes, general searching for emotional weaknesses and button-pushing, etc. (And Friend doesn’t even directly address things like the restriction of subject matter by ideology and the desire not to spoil corporate markets, or the metastasis of product placement.)

An unexpected corollary of the modern marketing-and-distribution model is that films no longer have time to find their audience; that audience has to be identified and solicited well in advance. Marketers segment the audience in a variety of ways, but the most common form of partition is the four quadrants: men under twenty-five; older men; women under twenty-five; older women. A studio rarely makes a film that it doesn’t expect will succeed with at least two quadrants, and a film’s budget is usually directly related to the number of quadrants it is anticipated to reach. The most expensive tent-pole movies, such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, are aimed at all four quadrants.

The collective wisdom is that young males like explosions, blood, cars flying through the air, pratfalls, poop jokes, “you’re so gay” banter, and sex—but not romance. Young women like friendship, pop music, fashion, sarcasm, sensitive boys who think with their hearts, and romance—but not sex (though they like to hear the naughty girl telling her friends about it). They go to horror films as much as young men, but they hate gore; you lure them by having the ingénue take her time walking down the dark hall.

Older women like feel-good films and Nicholas Sparks-style weepies: they are the core audience for stories of doomed love and triumphs of the human spirit. They enjoy seeing an older woman having her pick of men; they hate seeing a child in danger. Particularly once they reach thirty, these women are the most “review-sensitive”: a chorus of critical praise for a movie aimed at older women can increase the opening weekend’s gross by five million dollars. In other words, older women are discriminating, which is why so few films are made for them.

Older men like darker films, classic genres such as Westerns and war movies, men protecting their homes, and men behaving like idiots. Older men are easy to please, particularly if a film stars Clint Eastwood and is about guys just like them, but they’re hard to motivate. “Guys only get off their couches twice a year, to go to ‘Wild Hogs’ or ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ” the marketing consultant Terry Press says. “If all you have is older males, it’s time to take a pill.”

Studio marketers have a few rules for making their films seem broadly “relatable”:

Can’t we all get along? In “Stomp the Yard,” which was about an urban street dancer who goes to college, the poster showed the African-American hero with his back turned, leaving his race indeterminate. The campaign for “Bring It On” portrayed the story as a rivalry between white and black cheerleading squads, even though more than eighty per cent of the film was about the white squad. The first marketing materials for Fox’s X-Men franchise showed only an “X.” Why exclude half your audience?

If the poster shows a poster child, the movie is for kids. Posters are intended to tell you the film’s genre at a glance, then make you look more closely. Horror posters, for instance, have dark backgrounds; comedies have white backgrounds with the title and copy line in red. Because stars are supposed to open the film, and because they have contractual approval of how they appear on the poster, the final image is often a so-called “big head” or “floating head” of the star. Every poster for a Will Smith movie features his head, and for good reason: he is the only true movie star left, the only one who could open even a film about beekeeping monks.

Everybody’s a comedian. Any drama with at least three funny moments in it will be portrayed, in the trailer and TV spots, as a comedy. The trailer for the 2005 film “The Squid and the Whale” conveyed a measure of the film’s delicate unease, but it was basically a series of wry exchanges. A joke, particularly a pratfall, is self-contained, whereas a sad or anxious moment is hard to convey briefly and out of context.

If it’s called “The Squid and the Whale,” it’s somebody else’s problem. That movie was produced by Samuel Goldwyn Films, an independent studio, and grossed seven million dollars—quite good for a small film, but not for a studio release. If a movie’s title and stars don’t tell you almost everything you need to know about a film—“Get Smart,” starring Steve Carell, say—marketers worry. Fox had to spend a little extra to sell “The Devil Wears Prada,” because casual moviegoers wondered what Meryl Streep was doing in a horror film. When a movie underperforms, an awkward title is often seen as the culprit.

Always cheat death. People die in movies; they almost never die in trailers. They are courageous (“The Express”) or missing (“Changeling”) or profoundly alive (“Revolutionary Road”). “If a movie is completely, one hundred per cent about death, then it’s also about life, right?” Fox’s co-head of marketing, Tony Sella, told me. The only thing marketers can’t pull off, Sella acknowledged, is “selling old to young”—persuading kids to see a movie like “Driving Miss Daisy.” “You can try with”—he adopted a baritone voice-over—“ ‘You don’t know where you’re going, but here’s what it’s going to look like when you arrive.’ But they usually say, ‘Screw you, I’ll wait.’ ”

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