Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Why Movies Suck

"Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

The latest Pope Video made the Bear think of other incredibly tasteless garbage.

Roger Ebert reviewed Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and gave it zero stars. He recited some scathing criticism by Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times and the snarky response by the movie's star, Rob Schneider. Schneider had taken out ads in the trade press. They said:

 'Well, Mr. Goldstein, I decided to do some research to find out what awards you have won. I went online and found that you have won nothing. Absolutely nothing. No journalistic awards of any kind. . . . Maybe you didn't win a Pulitzer Prize because they haven't invented a category for Best Third-Rate, Unfunny Pompous Reporter Who's Never Been Acknowledged by His Peers."

Ebert's classic reply, delivered in the review, was this:

"As chance would have it, I have won the Pulitzer Prize, and so I am qualified. Speaking in my official capacity as a Pulitzer Prize winner, Mr. Schneider, your movie sucks."

He went on to write a book with the title, "Your Movie Sucks."

The Bear has not won a Pulitzer Prize yet. On the other hand, Roger Ebert could not rip out your spine by your head.

Does This Sound Familiar?

You've spent a hard day gathering honey, fishing and chasing ponies. Night falls and all you want to do is watch something entertaining that might not have been written, produced and directed by the Marquis de Sade. You log into Netflix and Amazon to find something to stream.

Your screen is instantly filled with 30,000 bad movies and TV series, most of them police procedurals based on Swedish detective shows. (That damned Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

Why? 

They're cheap to produce and people enjoy the formula, so it's easy to find production money. They are low-risk ventures that will capture enough eyeballs to make them attractive to investors despite -no, because of - a complete lack of originality. As long as producers stick to formulas and stale tropes, it is not difficult to make technically competent shows these days.

You are so bewildered and discouraged by all the bad choices vomited into your cave you give up in disgust and go to bed without watching anything. By morning, you have forgotten your vow to save some salmon every month by eliminating your subscription to Crapflix.

The Formula

Here is the formula: Stranger W (with a past troubled by X) arrives at close-knit community Y and discovers it has its own secret, Z.

When Bears take over in 2028, one of the first things they will do is rip out the spines of anyone who uses this formula. By their heads. And make cameras illegal in Sweden. (There are quite a few "first things Bears will do" because Bears have no concept of "second thing Bears will do.")

There is also the mind-numbing collection of cheap knock-offs, but they find audiences, too. A very few people don't want to watch Swedish police procedurals. Some want science fiction. Some want slashers. The Bear is sure you can name your own examples of lousy entertainment.

As usual, Bears blame humans. If humans are happy enough with garbage, then garbage they will will get and in abundance. As with everything else, the great lawgiver of finance Gresham is correct: bad anything always drives out the good.

The Problem

The problem, then, is simply this: there is no incentive to make excellent shows.
  1. Creativity always involves risk.
  2. Investors paying for productions don't like risk.
  3. It is not hard for independent production companies to make technically competent shows.
  4. There is an audience for formulaic shows that do not challenge viewers (the "veg factor").
  5. Major streaming services like to advertise large catalogues (and see 4 above).
  6. Investors like "not losing money" more than "making money."
What, then are the exceptions? Ah, this is where it gets interesting, at least to Bears.

Networks to the Rescue: Roots to Breaking Bad

Good old-fashioned networks are the exceptions.

Networks are the modern equivalent of the Hollywood Golden Age studios. They do have an incentive to make excellent shows. They covet the Emmys and advertisers their prestige projects garner just like the Louis B. Meyers of yore coveted Oscars and audience with theirs.

Think back to the miniseries of the 70s. One word: Roots. Those were the original network prestige projects. American television networks followed the BBC out of its soap opera and sitcom wilderness.

Today, think of AMC's Breaking Bad and Mad Men; or FX's The Americans; ABC's hot mess LOST or (more controversially) HBO's Game of Thrones. True, some series are better than others, but even genre shows like AMC's The Walking Dead infuse old material with high production values, complex plots and rich character arcs. 

As mentioned before, the BBC has long been a reliable source of quality television series, although they do not often become cultural phenomena. BBC America's Orphan Black was one heck of a ride and very challenging. Tatiana Maslany won a well-deserved Emmy for Lead Actress in a Drama Series in 2016 for playing the multiple roles of very different clones.

Some of these shows hit the trifecta of (1) critically acclaimed; (2) large audiences; and (3) cultural phenomena. They led the way for superior independent shows like Netflix's Stranger Things - it's own prestige production. Now that Netflix aspires to Network, that's how it works (although too little too late).

When the stars of these shows are featured in Super Bowl ads costing millions of dollars, you know they've hit cultural pay dirt.

The network series has unexpectedly emerged as the premier vehicle for drama. The tale of Walter White breaking bad could never have been told in a 120 minute motion picture.

The Lesson

There is a book called "The Genius of the System" by Thomas Schatz about the business and art of Golden Age Hollywood. The title says it all. Where can we find The System today?

The culturally significant drive for prestige projects exists almost exclusively in established, big-name television networks. This is not to say others are not producing some very good work. It is just that only the big familiar television networks are doing so consistently enough to be good examples of how and why what works works.

Why?

A big reason is that networks have a lot more flexibility to take risks than movie makers. Series can get yanked before losing too much money. Movies can be ridiculously expensive and they only get one shot. (Movie producers attempt to mitigate that risk by replicating success with establishment of franchises. Ready for that new Marvel Comics flick?)

It is also to explain why it is so hard to find the needle in the Soviet-propaganda-poster-sized haystacks of the big streaming services.

Quality comes out of The System. Even the old studio system has been resurrected after a fashion in well-known production companies. J.J. "Bad Robot" Abrams is marching along the path blazed by David O. Selznick, who was never a real studio head in the mold of Louis B. Meyer, yet made the highest-grossing film of all time (adjusted for inflation): Gone With the Wind.

It also won eight Oscars (10 if you count two honorary ones).

Of course, there are great independent filmmakers, but for every Jeff (Take Shelter) Nichols there are a thousand hacks pitching seen-it-all-a-million-times police procedurals.

And they are why the shows on your Netflix and Amazon accounts suck. Sure, you can cite exceptions, but good luck finding them.

In 1939 alone The System created both the iconic Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, plus Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and other classics. Can you imagine a producer trying to pitch The Wizard of Oz today? "Wait. This is a $250 million picture about singing midgets? And there's no comic book tie-in?"

(Note to self: the first thing Bears will do when we take over is make film depictions of comic book characters punishable by the usual.)

So, that is why the first thing Bears will do when they take over in 2028 is re-establsh the MGM-style studio system of old. 

And the Hays Code.

8 comments:

  1. When Blockbuster stores first opened, we usually got old movies. Lots of 50's and 60s, some 40s. We would select them by the famous actors and actresses and the academy awards. Today the people I work with, designers and artist types in their 20s and 30s, have never seen famous movies older than 15 years. I don't think they know what a good movie is. I'm glad you've mentioned "Mr. Smith goes to Washington". I've become a big fan of old Jean Arthur screwball comedy movies. If she's in it, it was good.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Please excuse my inelegant prose and fat fingers syndrome. I tend to do most blogging on the smartphone with a small screen and smaller keys

    ReplyDelete
  3. I've noticed that every Netflix movie I want to see is "DVD only." Somewhere along the line they have decided people only want to stream new stuff. I don't know the demographics of their streaming audience, but imagine it is younger. I think it would be worth their while to have a Netflix Classic, although the large Criterion Collection is exclusive to someone else. There are still tons of great movies like Matewan that are lesser known and available - but only on DVD.

    You can buy a lot of old movies for $12 from Microsoft, and I'm willing to spend to collect movies I know I'll enjoy again and again. (Read Ginger.)

    Filmstruck streaming is pretty good, too, but definitely for the film buff. There is a "streaming gap" between true classics and art movies and new stuff. It seems like most of the movies I want to watch fall in that gap.

    Am I the only one noticing that as the internet becomes more monetized, it is also become less useful? Most content is so buried in ads, beg screens, turn-off-your-ad-blocker windows, etc. it is miserable to read. The problem of over-choice we see on Netflix and Amazon is just part of the problem. As much information as Amazon has collected on me, you would think they could tailor a movie selection for my tastes. I suspect they would prefer that I conform to their corporate decisions than do that, though.

    I could make similar observations about publishing, although the problem is a little different, it still comes down to bad books driving out good books. Many people prefer to read bad amateur novels that are free on Amazon instead of paying for something professionally done and original. You wind up with the same problem of the dictatorship of the of the mediocre. And many authors self-publish without professional editing and are even worse than the average police procedural.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Not a fan of South Park, but this is apt (the third one is my favorite) :

    https://archive.org/details/youtube-EFLuIn6lj5g

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Congratulations. Every poster now shows up on email has you. How did you manage that?

      Delete
  5. Wow, fantastic blog structure! How long have you ever been blogging for?
    you made running a blog glance easy. The total glance
    of your site is excellent, let alone the content
    material!

    ReplyDelete

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