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.”
Mr. Canton was not just whistling in the dark. The Cable Guy did manage to take in $57 million in its first seven weeks, which is no doubt a lot less than Columbia/Tri-Star had hoped for but which is also, by way of perspective, $53 million more than Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, which opened the same week. But even if this summer’s receipts are disappointing, The Cable Guy will almost certainly turn a profit later on, when it opens overseas. For the overseas market has become Hollywood’s great financial cushion: since the late 1980s it has accounted for over 40 percent of the revenue at the top studios, and it has a delightfully perverse tendency to embrace with enthusiasm products the American market has stigmatized as duds.
Last summer’s magnificent flop, for instance, was Waterworld, a science-fiction adventure starring Kevin Costner said to have cost $175 million, which would make it the most expensive movie in history. The negative coverage was so prominent that it was probably a marginal plus at the box office, since it at least helped to promote name recognition. Waterworld sold only $88 million worth of tickets in the United States. But it then proceeded, after the American press’s back was turned, to take in $166 million overseas, and may well turn a profit. Two other forgettable and largely forgotten films from last year, First Knight, with Sean Connery and Richard Gere, and Judge Dredd, with Sylvester Stallone, have, similarly, made tens of millions more overseas than they did at home, where they were generally ridiculed or ignored.
The ingredient that makes a movie appealing to foreign audiences is not a secret. The Hollywood term of art for it is “action,” a concept which translates into lots of buildings exploding, vehicles flying through the air, thirty-foot fireballs, and so forth. A car chase, as they say, is the same in every language. So, for that matter, is a fart. The standard rhythm of an action movie today is ten minutes of “action,” followed by two minutes of dialogue, followed by ten more minutes of “action”—exactly the rhythm of a television program, which pauses for commercials, or a video game, which pauses when you run out of chances. It’s a format that doesn’t require many subtitles.
The purest distillation of this formula I have seen this summer (and I did not see the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie) is The Rock, with Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage. Its release was strategically sandwiched between the two most hyped movies of the summer: it opened three weeks after Mission: Impossible and three weeks before Independence Day—evidently judged to be the Slough of Despond slot, when American moviegoers would be walking around with seven dollars burning a hole in their pockets and wondering what in the world to do with themselves. The Rock, one of its stars boasted, is a movie in which no shot lasts longer than five seconds, and the figure is probably not far off. After the opening credits, two minutes do not go by without something taking place which involves a very loud noise and, if possible, a fireball. After eight weeks, The Rock had sold $125 million worth of tickets and was out-performing Mission: Impossible.
It seems a little beside the point to say what The Rock is about: good guys, bad guys, bad guys who are really good guys, good guys who are really bad guys, imminent peril to millions (deadly nerve gas), automatic weapons, fireballs, more guys. But it is not, structurally, particularly distinguishable from the other blockbusters of the summer—Independence Day, Mission: Impossible, and Twister, which took in $231 million in 12 weeks. (The fireball-equivalents in Twister are tornadoes, which turn up at the rate of about one every ten minutes. They are, needless to say, computer-generated; and I was interested to learn that, as with the fireballs, movie stars can outrun them.) The general pattern in all these movies is to graft a human interest story of a few people pulling together onto an enormous Roman candle of special effects.
The one movie that has a little trouble with this concept, oddly, is Mission: Impossible. Teamwork was precisely the element that distinguished the old Sixties television series on which the movie is based—about a team of agents who pull off elaborate undercover jobs for, presumably, the Defense Department—from the usual action format of the time, in which a Bond-like superagent took on the world more or less single-handedly. The movie version of Mission: Impossible, though, involves a betrayal within the I. M. force (as we call it), which consequently splits apart, requiring superagent-style exertions from the star, Tom Cruise.
Cruise’s own company produced the movie, and his name and face were used heavily in its promotion, so it may not be surprising that a template originally designed not to accommodate heroes was reconfigured to accommodate one big one. The Cruise character does assemble a team (which includes what is apparently the new requisite of all action pictures, a whiz computer hacker), but it’s not nearly as charming as the teams in Independence Day and Twister, neither of which has a single marquee-name star, and both of which have out-earned Mission: Impossible.
In Independence Day the teamwork idea, like everything else, is magnified to a cosmic scale. The movie is about an enormous spaceship of creepy-looking aliens who are dead set upon the destruction of all human life. This proves a chance for the upstanding but heretofore ineffectual President of the United States to step up to the plate, which he does by arranging on the Fourth of July for the launch of a global air armada against the aliens (heavy emphasis on the American contribution, of course), and by declaring that Independence Day will henceforth commemorate not the liberation of the American colonists from the British, but the day on which all of mankind rose up to throw off the yoke of its oppressors. It is astonishingly reminiscent of the rhetoric of the Comintern, but nobody in the movie seems to mind, and neither did Bob Dole and William Bennett.
The team concept is attractive for several reasons besides helping to save the expense of a superstar salary. For one thing, it generates buddy stories—sitcom-style vignettes about odd couples who learn that with a little grit and a sense of humor, darn it, we just might pull through this thing—which is the one aspect of most of these films that, on Hollywood’s calculation of such matters, might plausibly appeal to women. The team format also helps to immunize the movie against a certain kind of criticism: it permits every kind of stereotype, because in the great team gestalt, the stereotypes all cancel each other out. The black hero of Independence Day (played by Will Smith) can be shacking up with his black girlfriend who’s a stripper and her little boy (father unknown) but be reluctant to commit to marriage, because the Jewish hero with whom he teams up (Jeff Goldblum) is a brainy ecology nut whose dad (Judd Hirsch, in the most embarrassing performance of his life) goes around saying things like “Aliens, schmaliens.”
This was evidently the aspect of the picture Bob Dole had in mind when, after taking his wife to see Independence Day for her birthday, he uttered, upon emerging from the theater, this gnomic assessment: “Bring your family. You’ll be proud of it. Diversity. America. Leadership.” “Diversity,” I take it, would be Dolespeak for “blacks and Jews.” (Mrs. Dole’s assessment was not reported. I hope they went somewhere nice for dinner.)
The next morning, having had time to reflect and to consult with his own team, Dole qualified his recommendation, and suggested that Independence Day might not be appropriate for children under thirteen or fourteen. It does, after all, show the destruction of several large American cities, where millions perish—though Dole’s senior California adviser, Ken Khachigian, explained to reporters that this wasn’t necessarily all bad, since most of the people who live in large cities are liberals. Dole had been encouraged to spoil his wife’s birthday in this fashion by, of course, William Bennett, who explained to Adam Nagourney of The New York Times that what he liked about the movie (which is distributed, for what it’s worth, by Fox, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who is a longtime supporter of the Republican Party) was that in the end all the couples are reunited, with one exception: the First Lady dies. Still, he said, Independence Day is “a movie that has been ratified by the American people, a movie that the American people love.” Can you believe these guys?
Why were these grown-ups making fools of themselves over a cartoon? It seems to me that they had been caught in a Hollywood trap. For years, American movies presented the spectacle of pulp aspiring to become sophisticated entertainment—the spectacle of what were essentially stock pop formulae being worked up in order to “say” something. Now the trend has completely reversed. Most American movies are sophisticated entertainment striving frantically to become pulp. The Eddie Murphy Nutty Professor is cinematically a thousand times more accomplished than the 1963 Jerry Lewis picture it is a remake of. It’s faster, sharper, funnier, infinitely better photographed and better acted. But it is at least as mindless. And this is true of Independence Day and Mission: Impossible and all the other big summer hits: they want, in the worst way, to say nothing. For all their cinematographic wizardry, these movies are at the bottom of the generic barrel. And that is where they want to be, flying in underneath the moral radar.
One distinctive aspect of the current trend in moviemaking is the perpetual recycling—the remakes of Jerry Lewis movies and adaptations of TV series. Even Independence Day is (as its makers were quite frank to admit) a reprise of the old Seventies disaster genre (The Poseidon Adventure, The Towering Inferno, and other ancient and unlamented stuff), patched together out of bits and pieces of television series, like The X-Files and V, and dozens of old movies, from The War of the Worlds to The Right Stuff. But this recycling is not for lack of imagination. It is, as a number of reviewers of Mission: Impossible pointed out, a brilliant way to get baby boomers and their children into the theaters together. The Sixties generation wants to hear that old Mission: Impossible theme music in Dolby (by far the best thing about the movie, I thought), and they approve the story for their kids because the title makes them think it’s a known quantity. A new generation of consumers is cultivated by cashing in on the pop culture nostalgia of its parents.
People complain that Hollywood has become so addicted to empty big-budget action-adventure films that there is no variety any more. This is not really true. The mix of movies available this summer was actually quite impressive. Besides all the special-effects spectaculars, you could go to Trainspotting, I Shot Andy Warhol, the new Emma, Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty, John Sayles’s Lone Star, Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a literate adaptation of Cold Comfort Farm, and, if you have children not interested in spaceships, Matilda and Harriet the Spy.
These movies are various. But they are also all boutique movies—imports, personal projects, film festival fare. It is as though the industry knows how to make either movies that are small and specialized or movies that are huge and slick—either movies that gross $4 million or movies that gross $200 million—but nothing in between. What the people who complain about the lack of variety miss is not really variety. What they miss is a particular kind of Hollywood entertainment: original adult drama with dialogue written for grown-up speakers of English, more than one star, a serious director, and something resembling a moral edge—Shampoo, or Chinatown, or Shoot the Moon, or Sunday Bloody Sunday, or Nashville. Most of the talent since the early Eighties seems to have gone into $60-million adaptations of comic books. Hollywood doesn’t seem terribly interested in making movies for an adult American audience any more. And if you look at the numbers, why should it?
September 19, 1996