January 2006

Diagnosing Hollywood:
2005: The Year of the Movie Slump

Media Commentary
by John Kenneth Muir

John K. Muir's Encyclopedia of Superheroes was picked by NY Public Libraries as a Top Ten Reference Work for 2004/5

As far as the movie moguls in Hollywood are concerned, 2005 can’t end fast enough. Fiscally speaking, it was a bad year at the movies. The worst, in fact, in some fifteen years. Theater attendance was way down and even films that should have been sure-fire hits, like King Kong, are barely scraping out of the red. There have been some bright lights amongst the disappointments, to be sure, but overall, the box office in 2005 was grim. Even the final installment of the Star Wars saga failed to lift the industry to expectations.

So what’s up?

Well, plenty of industry insiders evidence concern about the rapidly closing 'release window' between theatrical and DVD premieres, which means, I suppose, that as prospective viewers, we’re just too lazy to get up and drive to a theater when we know we can just catch the same movie from the comfort of our living rooms in a matter of weeks.

But even that explanation doesn’t really make too much sense, because DVD sales are also down this year. Which means there is a deep problem brewing…

One possible explanation is that we’re simply all too distracted for the movies. The year 2005 will be remembered for tsunamis, Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harriet Miers, illegal wiretaps, and a bunch of other 'disasters,' both national and global—but usually, if times are bad, Americans go racing to escapist fare. Remember how 'vanilla' bland entertainment (like Enterprise and Smallville) saw big early ratings after September 11th, 2001? Following the terrorist attacks, people hungered for positive icons like Superman, or an optimistic view of the future like that portrayed in Star Trek.

So why wasn’t 2005 the year of more comfort entertainment, like 2001? Why the slump, and why now?

My personal feeling is that the box office numbers are down because Hollywood has made the terminal mistake of catering exclusively to sixteen year-old kids, at the expense of everybody else—hence the industry fascination with genre remakes. It’s like Hollywood thinks audiences can’t be trusted to remember that cinema boasts a history, and that we’ve seen King Kong (2005), The Fog (2005), Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), or The Producers (2005) before.

One might make the argument that the remake has been a component of Hollywood’s marketing strategy for time immemorial, but it has become so prominent a trend now as to be absurd. Back in the 1980s, when I was growing up, I remember that sequels were the trend. Critics complained about how many on-going installments there were of Poltergeist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Friday the 13th, Star Trek, Hellraiser, Mad Max, James Bond, Halloween, Back to the Future, Jaws, and just about everything else. Personally, I’ve always enjoyed sequels far more than remakes because at least in terms of a second or third installment, the audience is forced to countenance history; a back-story and background outside the present narrative. The audience must remember details, like where Captain Kirk ended up in the last installment. Not exactly a tall order.

But jeez, that modest work looks like brain surgery today (if not rocket science…) when you look at the plethora of remakes that require absolutely nothing of the modern audience. Thus America has officially become a 'reboot' and 're-imagination' culture, with no past and no future, only a constant 'now,' where productions made even a scant few years ago must now be remade with younger, hipper performers, to attract a sizable audience.

Yet this is a failing strategy, I believe, because—more and more—Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers represent the prime movers of our culture, and these movie remakes simply don’t appeal to them. Hollywood has bet the farm on the sixteen-year-old crowd, when it needs to be create entertainment that grown ups feel attracted to.

For instance, who—outside of a 16-to-22 year-old—is the audience for Doom? What self-respecting 36-to-65 year-old is going to race to the theater on opening weekend to see it? What’s the draw? A former pro-wrestler? A connection to a video game?

Maybe if Doom had actually been good—like, say, Aliens (1986) or The Fly (1986)—it wouldn’t matter what it was based on. But that wasn’t the case.

Another very serious concern is that as movies have become ridiculously expensive to produce, studios have had to hedge their bets and interfere more directly in the creative process, becoming absolutely unwilling to include controversial things like, for instance, subtext. This is the very thing that grants a film a 'life' beyond the first weekend. The original Texas Chain Saw Massacre has been read as everything from an indictment of meat-eaters to a comment on the 1970s Energy Crisis. So tell me, what was the new Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003) about, besides a killer named Leatherface? There may be 9/11 subtext there, but I doubt it was intentional…

The dumbing down and homogenization of our mass entertainment is a prime factor that’s killing audience interest in movies. Even when you look at the blockbusters of a previous age, you can determine that they work on multiple levels. Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars played with form, both acting as 'pastiches' for 1930s serials. Poltergeist was an indictment of 1980s yuppie values, and E.T. was a kind of Peter Pan story. These movies were more than elaborate special effects; they told us something about our world, either stylistically or thematically.

Movies like that do come along today, of course. But I fear they are becoming less and less common because Hollywood has so much money invested in these movies (King Kong cost over 200 million dollars to make…) that the concept of film as 'art' has finally and irrevocably left the building.

It’s sort of ironic. After years as a dirty cousin to cinema, television is coming into its own as a valid art form, primarily because the advent of cable has splintered network viewership, permitting niche dramas and comedies to flourish where once they would have been cancelled out of the chute, or never made it past the pilot stage. Contrarily, movies today feel more and more 'mass produced' in an industrial process (and are therefore less satisfying…) as desperate studios attempt to grasp ever wider audiences. And the wider the audience, the less individual—and the less challenging—the movie.

This is a trend that must be reversed, and soon. After Revenge of the Sith, after King Kong, we’ve seen the apex of CGI technology. What worlds are left to conquer?

It’s time to re-invest in the screenplay, in the writer, in the story. That focus, I believe, will send the box office numbers back to the stratosphere. The blockbuster mentality that’s dominated American culture from Jaws (1975) to Titanic (1997) is, I believe, finally coming to an end. There will always be blockbusters, but now they will have to appeal to our hearts and our heads again, as well as the spectacle gland.

Here’s my message to Hollywood: leave the video-games and the remakes behind, and stop trying to guess what the 16 year olds want. Do those things, and the slump will be something Hollywood prefers to ignore: History.

Copyright © 2005 by John Kenneth Muir. All Rights Reserved.