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The relation of art and commerce is increasingly backwards
Here’s something that struck me today — my thoughts on it aren’t particularly well fleshed out but, well, look, I do this five days a week, they can’t all be Henry Adams. (You can help bring it home in comments!)
Martin Scorsese, it seems, has said something in defense of cinema again, and this time not specifying Marvel theme parks or anything like that — he was talking about the intense focus on box office results one finds these days in the entertainment media:
Scorsese made a point to tout the New York Film Festival at a moment when “cinema is devalued, demeaned, belittled from all sides, not necessarily the business side but certainly the art,” he said. “Since the ’80s, there’s been a focus on numbers. It’s kind of repulsive. The cost of a movie is one thing. Understand that a film costs a certain amount, they expect to at least get the amount back, plus, again. The emphasis is now on numbers, cost, the opening weekend, how much it made in the U.S.A., how much it made in England, how much it made in Asia, how much it made in the entire world, how many viewers it got.”
I can’t pin the timing down, so I’m not sure the ‘80s were when the turn happened (though since it was the age of Reagan, and a negative development, it would stand to reason), but though I’m younger than Scorsese I clearly remember a time when box-office numbers simply weren’t top of mind for your average consumer of news or even someone who paid attention to the entertainment sections or arts supplements.
When I was a movie-mad kid, you knew something was a hit because it was loudly announced as such in its advertising, and if it was a big enough hit maybe the arts and entertainment editors would mention it too. But I don’t recall lists of top-ten or -twenty or -hundred box office winners like they have now. I can’t imagine even wanting to know what movies were on such lists. I vaguely knew that The Sound of Music was The Hit of 1965 — it was the only one I got to go to! — and if I’d given it a little more thought I might have figured out that Dr. Zhivago was close behind.
But numbers three, four, and five? (Thunderball, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, and That Darn Cat!, BTW.) Who thought like that? I don’t think even people who read Photoplay did.
And certainly there were famous flops, but those were also a matter of perception. Take Cleopatra. There was a lot of press about the Liz and Dick scandal, and even about the bloated, ever-escalating budget. But Cleopatra was also the top grossing film of 1963 — in fact, as this L.A. Times story points out, “was one of the top 10 grossing films of the ‘60s.” But Fox spent so much on it that they had to sell assets to finish it. It was a folly but hardly a box office story as such.
And I can’t recall reading a story back then that was, like so many are these days, about how a studio was disappointed simply because a picture had not, as it were, beaten the spread. It was generally understood that some movies might take years to make their money back, and then just barely. So what? We were just buying tickets, not shares in the studio.
But things have really changed. Put “Hollywood box office” in Google and, along with listings at Box Office Mojo and dozens of imitators, you’ll see hundreds of B.O.-focused stories in the arts and entertainment press and even in outlets not mainly known for such coverage such as CNBC (“Christian Bale and Margo Robbie’s ‘Amsterdam’ is on pace to lose $100 million”), CNN (“‘The Woman King’ surprises at the box office”) and the New York Times (“Women and Gen Z Drive ‘Don’t Worry Darling’ Box Office”)
That’s a change, and other people have noticed and offered educated opinions as to why. In his 2018 article for The Ringer, “Moneyballing the Movies: How the Box Office Became a Sport,” for example, Shaun Raviv argues that, just as more sophisticated statistical analysis led to on-the-field changes in baseball, so did similarly advanced analysis — applied to ticket sales, audience preferences, and a multitude of other factors — led to changes in the way the film industry markets what is increasing referred to as content, and how the press writes about it: “Since I first opened an issue of Entertainment Weekly in 1994, box office statistics have advanced along with sports statistics, moving well beyond the routine box score…”
This in turn, Raviv suggests, affects the way the media (including social media) talks about movie openings, both before and after the fact:
As with traditional sports coverage, box office prediction power has become a cottage industry unto itself…
Social media provides metrics based on the number of conversations about a movie happening on Twitter and Facebook and the amount that megastars with tens of millions of followers are promoting their films. Meanwhile, prerelease market research measures the public’s awareness (total and unaided) that a film is coming out, “definite interest” in seeing the film, and whether that movie is a surveyed person’s first choice of the films available. And all of it is broken down by demographics…
This creates marketing imperatives that not only radically increase the percentage of the Hollywood iceberg that rides below the line, but also make that part more interesting, for obvious reasons, to business writers — and people who write about film, I have also noticed, increasingly come from the business-press world rather than from the pool of star-struck kids who used to predominate. (Was it The Devil’s Candy, I wonder, that stated this?)
And because this makes business a bigger part of the media story on new movies, it appears to also affect how people look at new releases. Raviv’s closing:
That’s why someone with no connection to filmmaking can root for a movie, at its essence just another corporate product, to succeed. That’s why you can want Black Panther to “defeat” Infinity War and The Last Jedi at the box office, even though they are all owned by the same shareholders. And that’s why when The Crow beats 3 Ninjas Kick Back it feels like my favorite team has won the World Series.
OK, so he writes for a jock outlet. But when I look at the who’s-hot, who’s-not coverage of new releases in the current press, it seems to me that the old calculus on which movie coverage was traditionally based — like, is the movie good, is it something to take a date to, or the family, and (the journalism difference!) is the picture like what you might be expecting from the marketing or is the marketing misleading — has withered away; now the coverage seems to be about the business, and not in a penetrating way but more like what you get in junk stories about Musk and Zuckerberg and other celebrity businesspeople, or faddish new products and industries like crypto or NFTs.
In other words, it’s not about what you might reasonably want for your own modest purposes; it’s about something you’ve been trained to care about, or at least expect, instead.
I could compare this to so many other things that are kind of ass-backwards in so many aspects of contemporary life — but hey, as that other great director named Marty, DiBergi, once said, enough of my yakking. What do you think?