The movie industry has well-earned its nicknames such as “Tinseltown” and “La La Land.” Over the years, Hollywood turned out dazzling and star-powered productions that entertained Americans and distracted them from the monotony of everyday existence. Films were bigger than real life, of course, but moviegoers liked dramatic escapism and were willing to spend a few dollars and two hours in a darkened auditorium for a unique experience.
Today, however, the industry has lost its way, unable to connect to regular people who view Hollywood as existing in a detached cultural orbit. Movies still have to appeal to a society’s cultural core and too many filmmakers are living in their own fake worlds. Fantasy and fiction and flashiness have appealed to audiences for decades, but overproduced special effects, bizarre story lines, fake hype and cultural disconnection do not.
Movie attendance last year dropped to its lowest level in over twenty years. There were 330 million fewer tickets sold last year than in 2002. Even with an improving national economy, which should send people into movie houses with disposable income, the film industry suffered. The sour public mood about Hollywood was reflected in the poor ratings for the Golden Globes telecast, for which viewership was down in spite of the hype surrounding Oprah.
There is little remaining in Hollywood with which traditional viewers can connect. The twentieth century philosopher, G.K. Chesterton, once wrote, “Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen from mere art. There must be a rich moral soil for any great aesthetic growth.” So it is with today’s “entertainment” industry as it spins its wheels with “mere art” and a defective moral compass.
The movie market has been flooded in recent years with sequels and remakes, a sure sign the industry is running out of ideas. Producers inject gaudy special effects in an attempt to startle viewers, but this technical wizardry can’t cover for a lack of story.
Superheroes and comic book characters are all over the big screen. That’s appealing to a certain niche of viewers, but that genre can only take the industry and the viewers so far. Most people disengage from comic heroes after childhood. Producer/actress Jodie Foster recently slammed superhero movies in a published interview. “Going to the movies has become like a theme park,” Foster said. She went on to say “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses … is ruining the viewing habits of the American population.” And part of the problem is that these films aren’t actually appealing to the masses.
Movie industry supporters point to increased competition from streaming video platforms to explain away the decline in film attendance. That might be a partial excuse, but there is more to that story. Seeing a film on the big screen should still be an enhanced viewing experience compared to watching Neflix on a small screen with the many distractions of watching at home. If watching video at home were that great, the film industry would have disintegrated in the 1950s when television invaded the American home.
Movie chains are trying to entice viewers into the theaters now with recliner seats, expanded concessions and even alcohol. Such amenities won’t solve the problem of a weak product on the screen. Besides, comfortable seats, wide food choices and booze are all available more cheaply in a person’s home.
The film industry has always been a combination of reflecting a society’s existing culture and using the medium to influence and move the culture. The decline in movie attendance today could well reflect consumers’ instinct that their existing principles and standards are being ignored by film producers who selfishly seek to push their own world views. Recent revelations about the seediness and harassment that pervades the entertainment industry tells all that we need to know about the cultural chasm between Hollywood and the rest of the nation. That predators have thrived for years and been covered up surely gives most regular Americans pause about financially supporting the film industry.
Film producers would be well advised to start understanding and considering the interests of their potential audience. Finding a Jimmy Stewart to become the face of the film industry, as opposed to Harvey Weinstein, would also help.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University.