Why are so many movies awful?

The short answer: they’re ruled by marketing, not by art, feeling, or emotion, to the extent that those characteristics can’t be captured by marketing.

The longer answer comes from Tad Friend’s article in the January 19 2009 issue of The New Yorker, “The Cobra: Inside a movie marketer’s playbook,” which describes how movies get made. Today, the answer is nearly identical to the question of how movies get marketed. My favorite quote is a little less than midway through:

” ‘Studios now are pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates,’ one studio’s president of production says. ‘So at green-light meetings it’s a bunch of marketing and sales guys giving you educated guesses about what a property might gross. No one is saying, “This director was born to make this movie.” ‘ “

“Pimples on the ass of giant conglomerates:” it’s a great metaphor that conveys precisely how much vast corporations care about art as well as the relative power of those existing within studios. Creativity isn’t dead, even in major studios’ presidents of production, but neither is cynicism, as the article shows in too many places to enumerate. “Cynical” might be too light a word—if Julie Salamon’s ‘The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood is somewhat cynical, then nothing except perhaps nihilism describes the Hollywood marketer’s mind as portrayed by Friend.

Read the whole article for more: it never comes out and baldly states what’s obvious, as I have. This blog only occasionally strays into territory dealing with movies; this analysis of Cloverfield is my only extended treatment of one, although this post discusses movie versions of Ian McEwan’s Atonement and George Crile’s Charlie Wilson’s War. Perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that the movies I tend to pay the most attention to are based off books; according to Friend’s article, such movies are “‘pre-awareness’ titles: movies like ‘Spider-Man’ whose stories the audience already knew from another medium […]” like virtually all that have made extraordinary amounts of money in the last decade. Movies also tend to raise a book’s profile enough to encourage me to read it when I otherwise wouldn’t; the movie version of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader is an example of this.

I suppose the same question regarding why so many are so bad could be applied to books too, but books are often less obvious: critics seem to have (slightly) more power, and the sheer number of books makes the bad ones easier to ignore. Call it strength in diversity. Movies are noisier, and because there are fewer of them, each one collects more attention. But because they cost so much to make, they become a numbers game; I care vastly more about aesthetic worth than opening weekends. But, at least as shown in this article, Hollywood cares about those numbers.

It shows in their product.

EDIT: Wynton Marsalis, by way of Alex Ross:


At the root of our current national dilemmas is an accepted lack of integrity. We are assaulted on all sides by corruption of such magnitude that it’s hard to fathom. Almost everything and everyone seems to be for sale. Value is assessed solely in terms of dollars. Quality is sacrificed to commerce and truthful communication is supplanted by marketing.

In addition, see my comments on Julie Salamon’s The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood for more on how the way movies are made affects the movies that are made.

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