H’wood asks: Has pop culture pooped out?

The vaunted holiday movie season can best be summed up in three words: What went wrong?

Hollywood felt it had a sure-fire scenario for the holidays. An array of pricey tentpole pictures were teed up for release. And the third “Lord of the Rings” would blaze the way. A disappointing year would surely be rescued by these mainstream hits.

But it didn’t happen. And the answer to that question — what went wrong? — could portend even more disturbing questions about other sectors of our pop culture.

The bottom line for the year is this: Total domestic box office revenues barely held their own in 2003, escaping the first decline since 1991. And the number of people going to the movies in 2003 fell by about 4%.

In short, there are significant signs that the mainstream audience for movies may be drifting away in the same slow but relentless pattern that’s afflicting broadcast television and music.

If true, this comes as a shock to the multinational corporations that control the major studios. They thought they had the mainstream formula: tentpoles, franchises and branded sequels. Their battle cry: If you spend the money, they will come.

They spent big money over the holidays for an array of movies that normally would seem grist for summer release, such as “The Last Samurai” and “Master and Commander.”

The working assumption was that the “Rings” phenomenon would buoy these films by expanding the public’s appetite for moviegoing — a spillover factor that is often in evidence in May and June.

While the official line from Warner Bros. and Fox is that both superstar films performed up to expectations, neither has, in fact, generated the sort of excitement its distributors had anticipated.

By year-end, “Master and Commander” (backed by three studios) generated a domestic gross of $81 million, while “The Last Samurai (backed solely by Warner Bros.) rolled up $80 million. And not only did the distributors spend lavishly on marketing, but they also had to cope with major first-dollar gross participations.

All this proved even more daunting because of the earlier nosedives taken by “Looney Tunes: Back in Action,” “Stuck on You,” “Timeline,” “The Missing,” “The Cat in the Hat” and several other pricey disappointments that marred the last half of the year.

In some instances, distributors seemed bent on eating their own: witness Sony’s decision to bring forth two star vehicles aimed at a very similar demographic: “Mona Lisa Smile,” starring Julia Roberts, and “Something’s Gotta Give,” starring Jack Nicholson and Diane Keaton.

Then there was the case of “Peter Pan.” Though Disney passed, three companies — Revolution, Universal and Sony — felt there was a mainstream audience for another iteration of the classic. The initial box office results, however, were tepid — $11.4 million for the opening weekend.

To be sure, the onset of kudos season could ameliorate some of Hollywood’s problems. A profusion of nominations will surely rain down on “Cold Mountain,” “Master and Commander” and “The Last Samurai,” and will add further luster to Peter Jackson’s third “LOTR” installment.

At the same time, the jolts of the holiday season are spurring urgent reassessments at the major studios.

“There’s a certain insanity to the industry’s practice of releasing virtually all of its adult, Oscar-worthy pictures in the final weeks of the year, when our prime adult audience is the busiest and least responsive,” observes the chief of one major. “I simply won’t let it happen again.”

This game plan has become even more hazardous given the soaring costs. A $200 million gamble like “Spider-Man 2” may fit a certain bizarre logic as a summer picture aimed at the youth audience, but should Oscar-worthy adult films released in December average out at $150 million?

“The DVD bounty has given us all a dangerous case of hubris,” comments one distribution chief.

Indeed, this hubris may have clouded an even deeper issue: namely, what’s happened to the mainstream audience?

Generations ago, entertainment companies could habitually tap into huge segments of the population with an “Amos ‘N Andy” in radio, an “I Love Lucy” in TV, or a “Gone With the Wind” in film.

I remember once walking down a street in the little town of Effingham, Kansas, many years ago, and noticing that every single TV set in every single house was tuned to the same show (alas, it was Lawrence Welk).

Some pundits used to despair that popular tastes were hopelessly homogenized, yet there was a true comfort in the existence of mainstream. It may have been boring, but it was unifying. A heartland America existed after all.

That homogeneity is clearly fragmenting. The sector of our pop culture that is experiencing the most robust growth is cable TV; it’s all about “Queer Eye” and “Nip/Tuck,” not “Looney Tunes.” These shows exploit fragments, not mainstreams.

And the implications for Hollywood are vividly apparent. To focus resources solely on giant mainstream extravaganzas is self-destructive. For every “Finding Nemo,” there are four “Sinbads.” For every “Pirates of the Caribbean,” there are a dozen “Hulks” and “Looney Tunes.”

The global companies that control the entertainment industry are themselves monoliths. Their corporate cultures spawn monolithic solutions to complex cultural conundrums. The occasional “Harry Potter” can temporarily obscure that conundrum, but it won’t make it go away.

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