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Hollywood’s Trap

The Nutty Professor

a film by Tom Shadyac

Independence Day

a film by Roland Emmerich

Mission: Impossible

a film by Brian De Palma

The Rock

a film by Michael Bay

Twister

a film by Jan De Bont

The Cable Guy

a film by Ben Stiller

It would be edifying to learn what William Bennett, whose expertise as a moral diagnostician is currently on loan to the Dole campaign, has to say about The Nutty Professor, which has become one of the top moneymakers of the summer season and which is essentially a movie about—let us not mince words, my fellow Americans—farting. I am unclear where flatulence jokes stand in the list of virtues. Nothing human, of course, should disgust us; I feel confident that Mr. Bennett would agree on this point, one that is well established in the Western canon. On the other hand, do we want Americans to leave movie theaters under the impression that it’s “cool” to fart in the middle of, say, church? Surely we do not. What exactly is the message here?

I suspect, unfortunately, that The Nutty Professor is a phenomenon impervious to moral diagnosis. The movie, which is about a lovelorn 300-pound genetics professor who invents a formula for transforming himself into an impudent stud, is a warm-hearted, humane, completely predictable comedy whose idea of sublimity happens to be a family of overweight people sitting around the dinner table making rude noises. It stars Eddie Murphy, who plays, with the help of makeup and some amazing computer-generated morphing, the professor, the stud, and several other characters as well. As gross-out humor goes, it is consistently gross, pretty funny, and not in the least mean-spirited. Americans have spent, so far, over $100 million to see it. Does this tell us anything about anything?

A confusion usually arises when this question is asked about a movie, or about the state of movies in general. This is a confusion between the culture and the market. These are two completely different things, but they have gotten run together, in part thanks to people like Bennett, who want to illustrate an ethical point with what is essentially a commodity. It is, at a certain level, like trying to moralize about Tupperware.

For Hollywood doesn’t reflect our culture. It is merely part of our culture; and like pretty much everything else in our culture, it is in the never-ending business of seeking out the maximally profitable economic niche for its product. This happens to be, since it is so expensive to manufacture, a mass product, and it therefore requires a pretty big niche. But maximizing the profitability of a niche means precisely not wasting too much energy trying to please everybody.

Hollywood has been forced into the position of wasting some of its energy, trying to please everybody, though, because of the public relations problem created for it by people like Bennett, Bob Dole, and Bill Clinton, who, over the past few years, have found it expedient to lecture the industry on the subject of its moral hygiene. Journalists are happy to cover these speeches (which is why politicians are happy to deliver them), though most commentators think them silly—“Hollywood Babble On,” as Maureen Dowd headed one of her many columns on the subject. Intellectually, of course, they are silly; and they tend, perversely, to reinforce Hollywood’s own exalted opinion of its social stature. Bennett, for instance, has taken to comparing the film industry to the medieval Roman Catholic Church, and to saying things like “what is done here [in Hollywood] has more impact on the country overall than what is done in Washington: the country’s sense of itself, its morale, and its direction”—which is exactly the sort of thing you say to potential campaign contributors. There is always a lot of room left to do business in these sermons to the industry.

But it would probably be a mistake to assume that because the lectures are largely self-serving—often made by people who, like Dole, have not even seen the movies they’re complaining about—they inflict no damage. I doubt that people in the movie business are as cavalier about these criticisms as Maureen Dowd. A general public impression that the typical Hollywood movie is a raunchy and sordid affair—“a nightmare of depravity” is the phrase Dole used in the 1995 edition of his Hollywood speech—cannot possibly be good for business. Not many adults are likely to be frightened away by this kind of talk, but it isn’t the adults the industry needs to worry about.

For the fact is that the biggest movie money-makers of all time—E.T., which had $400 million in domestic ticket sales, Jurassic Park, which had $357 million, the “Star Wars” and Indiana Jones movies, and many others—are essentially movies for fourteen-year-old boys. Fourteen-year-olds are an ideal audience, for several reasons. They often go to a picture more than once—alone, on a date, with different sets of pals, with their families. They are the chief market for the tee shirts, soundtracks, and other licensed paraphernalia that now accompany most blockbuster movies as they cut their enormous swaths through the culture. (The soundtrack for The Nutty Professor was one of the best-selling albums in the country this summer.) And they are the home-video consumers of the future, who some day will buy or rent, for themselves or for their own children, the pictures they loved (or can be persuaded they loved) when they were kids. Disney has made a fortune by methodically re-releasing its “classic” animated features, an inventory that goes back to Snow White (1937) and Fantasia (1940). This is an audience of multiple repeat customers, good for a lifetime of use; you do not want to lose even a fraction of it because of a moral panic induced in its parents by public figures seeking to appear friendly to family values.

Hollywood’s problems are not all of the public relations variety, though. It has an economic problem which is much older, and which has to do with the huge manufacturing costs associated with its product. These costs keep escalating in part because competition within the industry keeps ratcheting up audience expectations. Someone who goes to a movie touted as a summer blockbuster and who does not see buildings exploding, vehicles flying through the air, and thirty-foot fireballs would be justified in feeling that he has not gotten his money’s worth, and should have patronized the moviehouse next door.

Many of these special effects are now done with computers, but that doesn’t make them inexpensive. Almost half of Independence Day, the alien-invasion story which is the top-grossing movie of the summer and may be on its way to becoming the top-grossing movie of all time, was “filmed” inside a computer, in what are known as “digital special-effects shots,” which combine simulated images against a “backplate” (a stock shot, such as a skyline) in whatever configuration the director chooses. The general idea is to make what is essentially a comic book look like a movie, that is, to manipulate realistic people and things in order to make them behave as though they were in a cartoon.

Independence Day has 360 of these digital special-effects shots. (This is in addition to shots using miniaturized models; there are 120 of those.) The going rate on a single digital special-effects shot of the type used in Independence Day is $150,000—though the producers found a bunch of German computer students (the director of the film, Roland Emmerich, is German) to do the work on the cheap, and whittled the cost down to $40,000 per shot. The movie cost $70 million to make; it sold $230 million worth of tickets in its first five weeks.

But most movies, obviously, do not sell $230 million worth of tickets in five weeks, and when one movie does, it is eating into the chances of every other movie. The number of summer entertainment dollars is, presumably, more or less fixed. A movie must compete for a fraction of that loot not only with all the other movies currently in release, many of which are generically indistinguishable, but with every other available recreation—for example, this summer, television coverage of the Olympics and, because of the decent weather, the outdoors. God’s greatest gifts to Hollywood are unspeakable humidity and a baseball strike. And a movie cannot hang around indefinitely waiting for the money to trickle in, since screens have to be cleared for the next round. The practice has consequently been to stake everything on a huge opening weekend, and to hope for a decent three or four weeks after that during which everyone who missed the opening rushes to the theaters to catch up. Then the film retreats to the mall multiplex, the heavens re-open, and the next blockbuster descends.

It is a strategy that requires a high degree of media synergy, which must be orchestrated to begin well before the movie reaches the theaters. The Independence Day Web site, for example, accumulated over two million hits before the film even opened, and people waited in line overnight to see the first screening. (It is a little hard to imagine what these people were thinking: this was a movie that was about to start playing virtually around the clock in three thousand theaters.)

The American media have long since figured out the economic logic of pre-release promotion: the coverage sells the movie, but the movie also sells the coverage. When you buy a copy of Esquire because it has Tom Cruise on the cover, or when you stay tuned because your local news show has promised a peek at the forthcoming Kevin Costner picture at eleven, you are being primed for the box office; but meanwhile you are helping Esquire‘s newsstand circulation figures and your local news show’s ratings.

Thus Matthew McConaughey, a relative newcomer who stars in A Time to Kill (based on a novel by John Grisham), appeared on the covers of four magazines this summer, including Vanity Fair and Texas Monthly; and Gwyneth Paltrow, who plays Emma in Douglas McGrath’s adaptation of the Austen novel (and who is also the girlfriend of Brad Pitt, an actor who has been successfully packaged as the sexiest man alive), was on at least three magazine covers and was profiled in both Time and Newsweek. It is in no one’s interest at these magazines or television stations to make you think that the movies being promoted in this way are not worth seeing. (In some cases, of course, the studio distributing the movie and the magazine, newspaper, or television station “covering” it are part of the same corporate entity; but that’s another story.)

Still, even the most complete pre-release saturation cannot rescue a movie after it opens when the word of mouth goes sour. This is what happened this summer with The Cable Guy, which stars Jim Carrey, who is Hollywood’s leading goofball comic at the moment and who had given every appearance, until this outing, of being gold-plated. The Cable Guy cost, depending on reports, between $60 and $70 million, which is expensive for a comedy, in part because the studio, Columbia Pictures, paid Carrey $20 million to appear in it. It was panned (as too “dark”) with unusual indignation by reviewers, faded at the box office, and quickly became the subject of newspaper stories about Hollywood’s inability to run its own business. The stories understandably irritated the chairman of Columbia/Tri-Star (which owns Columbia Pictures, and which is owned in turn by Sony), Mark Canton. Canton was, as it happens, the man who had personally approved Carrey’s salary, and he was quoted in the Times as boasting that at the end of the day, “we’re going to have a very profitable film.”

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