Anomalies Inc.: That’s showbiz 1997

IT IS THE HABIT OF PUNDITS to start each year with weighty forecasts and pronouncements, but I find that I always have more questions than answers around this time. Dopey questions, at that.

Here’s a sampling of things I don’t quite get as ’97 dawns:

1. Why have all the studios become so enamored of disaster movies? Hollywood clearly has decided to make a firm commitment to $100 million “event pictures,” but do they all have to be about floods and volcanoes? Is there some secret research out there that tells them the public is desperate to see the Titanic go down one more time? Hollywood would do well to remember the fate of a producer named Irwin Allen, who specialized in sinking ships, towering infernos and the like in the ’70s, and finally ran out of both disasters and audiences. His final film: “When Time Ran Out.” Now that’s a real disaster.

2. WHY IS WALL STREET now telling the big entertainment companies that unless they spin off ancillary operations, their stock prices will continue to be depressed? Only a couple of years ago, these same advisers were preaching the doctrine of vertical integration – it was mandatory to control all facets of production and distribution. The investment bankers, of course, make their money on deals. Now that these megacompanies have bought everything in sight, could it be that the bankers would now like them to sell everything in sight?

3. Why do outstanding studio movies seem to emerge at the end of every year from studio regimes that have fallen apart? Sony’s management went up in smoke this year, and what emerged from the ashes? “Jerry Maguire” and “The People vs. Larry Flynt,” arguably the two best studio-made films of the year. Does this give credence to the theory that art flourishes in an atmosphere of chaos and not under the thumb of corporate suits?

4. SINCE THE PUBLIC DOESN’T seem to have time to go to movies or see network TV shows anymore, why does everyone have time to go to Las Vegas? While the size of the filmgoing audience has remained flat and TV ratings have dwindled, there seems to be no lid on the number of new hotel rooms and casinos sprouting in the Nevada never-never land. Just last weekend, a mammoth hotel called New York-New York opened, its proprietors offering to simulate every Gotham experience down to post-midnight muggings. Circus Circus promptly unveiled its biggest casino project ever, a 4,000-room Vegas hotel costing $1 billion. It’s aiming to have 20,000 rooms on the Strip by 2004. Clearly Vegas feels it will never run out of customers. What do they know that the rest of the entertainment sector doesn’t?

5. Which leads us to a related question: There’s a whole segment of the entertainment-seeking public that has gone out of focus for me. Joe Roth reminds us in an interview in the Los Angeles Times last week that “the over-40 moviegoing audience has doubled in the last five years.” Well if more mature types are recapturing the screens from the tyranny of teenagers, I’d like to know what movies they’re seeing. Indeed, last weekend I kept running into full-fledged grownups whose only recent filmgoing experience consisted, not of “Hamlet,” but of “Beavis and Butt-head Do America.” If Joe Roth is correct about his data, I think the studios better try to pull more young people back into the cinema so that serious pictures can find an audience.

6. WHY DO TV INDUSTRY FIGURES keep referring to the glories of the 500-station universe and the coming era of diversity when, if anything, the window seems to be closing on niche programming and true channel diversity? It’s all but impossible to launch independent cable webs nowadays without major MSO affiliation. Only two independents without an MSO partner were able to launch this past year – America’s Health Network and the Classic Sports Network – and I’ll be damned if I can find either one on my TV.

Sure, we’ll continue to see the MTVs and ESPNs subdivide, amoeba-like. But channel surfers are not going to discover the richly diverse landscape that keeps being promised. This means people may get so bored, they’ll end up in Vegas.

As I warned at the top, these are essentially stupid questions. I think next year I’ll write one of those columns offering weighty pronouncements like all the serious pundits.

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