A culture in question

Tom_hanks When does the anthropologist know that the culture is question is really in question? 

When key players, players with incumbency and great advisers, throw up their hands and say, "I dunno.  Things are changing.  And we can’t say how."

I am no guarantee that a movie is going to be a success.  …  The audience has become smart about stars.  So it’s chaos out there now.  Nobody has any idea why people are going to see a movie.  Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit or what’s going go be irrelevant.  There are no new models.  The new paradigm in Hollywood is that there is no new paradigm.  (Tom Hanks in the current issue of Entertainment Weekly.)

Now, we could be listening to a celebrity who wants to express reticence or apology for the current project (in the case, Charlie Wilson’s War).  Or this may merely reflect Hollywood’s puzzlement over the failure of recent war movies (The Kingdom, Rendition, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, A Mighty Heart). 

But if we are hearing a deep indeterminacy in the world of Hollywood, something remarkable is upon us.  After all, Hollywood is good at listening, good at responding to the moment, good at finding a way to speak to shifting taste and preference of Americans, whatever these tastes and preferences are.  If Hollywood has lost the thread, something’s up.

There are three possibilities:

1) tastes and preferences are in transition.  And, God knows, this happens.  Trends make their way through our culture.  One Easy Rider and all bets are off.

2) tastes and preferences are now indiscernible. They are out there.  But our powers of pattern recognition are modest and we can’t see them.

3) tastes and preferences are so disaggregated that a mass medium like film making can no longer count upon the mass audiences needed to manage an acceptable return on an investment of $ 100 million dollars.  (This is the average cost of a Hollywood film.  I’m sure Charlie Wilson’s War was much more.)


You choose.


Svetkey, Benjamin.  War Games.  Entertainment Weekly.  December 21, 2007.  pp. 29-37, p. 37.

7 thoughts on “A culture in question

  1. Joachim

    Grant, I respectfully disagree with all three of your assertions. As for 1), I think the delivery mechanism of content is in extreme transition, and for 2) if you take a look at the films that are showing very positive box office and which ones are not, there’s a clear pattern (anti-American, America as “evil” are the ones losing the most, and as for 3) again, take a look at the most recent box office of this past week-end for “I Am Legend” — a good story, good acting, and not a bit of anti-American sentiment or America as “evil” in the movie.

    I think Hollywood is trapped inside a bubble of extreme left-wing ideology and the powers-that-be are green lighting films to make themselves more acceptable to their extreme left colleagues. They appear not to care a bit whether their anti-America films do well domestically since they hope they’ll tap into International anti-American fervor and at least break even.

    Something else to consider is that the film studios are embedded inside of some mega-corporation and the balance sheet losses are covered by some other unit within the business portfolio. However, I think eventually the proverbial financial rooster will come home to roost.

    Also keep in mind that the studios no longer control the story about their films. With mobile phones, Twitter, texting, chat, YouTube, blogs, etc., word of mouth of a disappointing movie gets out faster than ever before.

    I haven’t been to a theater in years as I can no longer bear the rude audiences, the excessive cost of tickets and refreshments, and most of all, the horrible product. I do, however, still enjoy movies at home on my very affordable home theater setup. And I have over a 100+ entries in my NetFlix Queue so I still certainly enjoy movies.

    San Antonio, Tx

  2. Peter

    It seems to me the problem is a long-standing one. Wasn’t it William Goldman in his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” who said (two decades ago), “Nobody knows anything” — referring to the inability of Hollywood to predict a movie’s public reception before its release?

    There are people who claim they can predict how well movies will do, using neural networks. See, for example, this article by Malcolm Gladwell in “The New Yorker” (2006-10-10):


  3. Paul Hebert

    I don’t argue that the reasons offered in both the post and comments are valid but I think the real issue stems from the fact that we live in a “long-tail enabled” world now.

    I make the distinction of adding the word “enabled” because I think we’ve always had long-tails of opinion and taste but we didn’t have a way to express it – and we didn’t have a society that embraced those differences.

    We now have the technology that allows us to express and indulge our heterogeneous nature coupled with a change in our tolerance level that let’s us actually celebrate it.

    The “old” world couldn’t take advantage of the tail technologically and society wanted to believe we were homogeneous.

    Once this changed all the models changed – business, media, social, etc.

  4. jkh

    o.k – here is my bet:
    Charlie Wilson’s War is going to be a success (definitely in the US) because it rides on a polarising topic in a narrative and witty way without taking sides (do not know if that is entirely true , but it better be…)

    i do not think that it is impossible to craft a box-office hit these days. – key is to find a topic that polarises – and in this way also unites – society: america at war should definitely be one. – if you are then able to zoom out to show the whole scope of ambivalence and anker that in one character… there you go. – if you then also have a fast paced script… and julia roberst in an unusual role, and everybody’s darling phil hoffmann + mister average usa tom hanks… … sounds like a christmas smash hit to me.

    of course the super a-list cast gambles on a success – and of course it is not a pure fantasy 007, bourne or lighthearted ocean’s xyz…

    still: polarising topic + fast paced script + humorous meta-narrative = box office hit

    my bet.

  5. Matt

    Maybe the answer is not in the movie, but in the delivery. Flat Screen TV’s are affordable. So are surround sound systems. With that investment, and the knowledge that there are a lot of action movies out there to see at home, one might be more inclined to wait until the DVD to see action films. A movie has a much longer back end now with DVD, ppv, director’s cut special edition DVD, etc. To suggest a movie has failed because it failed at the box office might be the old paradigm.

  6. Laurie

    The correct answer is No. 3: tastes have become so disaggregated, the mass medium of film-making cannnot adequately respond.

    The movie industry must largely be a mass medium — due to the massive budgets, except for the rare, small-budget, quirky niche production that finds commercial success (such as Borat). The industry also requires that corporations that run cineplexes and chains of theatres be able to fill hundreds of seats several times each day.

    The disaggregation problem dates back 20 years, with the start of specialty television channels. The large networks are now struggling as viewers opt for an array of channels, includiing Food TV, sportsnet, the History Channel and even sports-definede channels (which offer only hockey or soccer).

    This is further accentuated by cable’s “on demand” service, which allows that already segmented audience to further refine itself, as viewers can choose a series to watch and subsequently view all the episodes aired.

    We no longer watch the same shows together as a community or a society; our values and our experiences are no longer common and this enhances that disaggregation.

  7. Cherie

    All of the commenters have made excellent points, and I’m sure that they all have an effect. And knowing how things are trending and what people think can determine how one persuades a potential movie go-er to see a film. But …

    The real difference is whether a good story is being told. Let’s compare two disgustingly expensive films with tons of special effects, the first Lord of the Rings film, the Fellowship of the Ring and this year’s the Golden Compass. Both had stunning stars (whether one’s into guys or gals). Both had amazing special effects. Yet, I adored Lord of the Rings, and the Golden Compass was … eh.

    What’s the difference? One took the time to develop characters and tell a good story. The other seemed in a rush to get through everything, so that the viewer would know everything that he or she needed in order to see the next film. Now likely, there won’t be another film. Will anyone care? But I can hear it in movie studios all over. “That’s it! The public isn’t interested in fantasy movies anymore.” No, that’s not it. They want a well told story involving characters that they care about. That doesn’t matter whether it’s a $200 million film or a low-budget, independent.

    Why did George Clooney’s Ocean 11 do so well, whereas 12 & 13 have grossed progressively less as ticket prices have gone up? It’s still the same stars, director, etc. In an effort to be bigger, better, and demonstrate how much more clever they could be, the story got left in the dust.

    Hollywood knows what a good story is. They can do it when they put their minds to it. It doesn’t matter much whether that story is set in Ancient Egypt, in a galaxy far far away, in the Old West, or is contemporary. If the story is good, people will come. Are they willing to go through the effort?

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