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April 01, 2005

Brain Dead

Friedrich von Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards:

I’ve been seeing what has been—for me—quite a few films lately. While my days of epic movie-going (which included sitting through Godfathers I and II back-to-back in a single evening) are decades in the past, I still occasionally play hooky from work by picking up a film.

I did so the other day, hoping to have a few laughs. And I did…very few laughs. Standing at the ticket counter, I chose “Miss Congeniality 2” for reasons that seem rather unclear as I write this, although I think it was because several people had told me that the original was “kind of funny.” Now I’m hoping the studio makes twelve or thirteen more sequels so I can boycott them. I went in looking to change my mood, and I did; I staggered out of the theater 15 or 20 minutes before the closing credits (I would have left earlier but I fell asleep) feeling like I’d had a full frontal lobotomy performed without anesthetic.

Then a few nights later I went to see an Israeli film, “Walk on Water.” While not a perfect piece of cinema—it suffers from a comparatively weak ending—it was obviously made by people who had a few thoughts in their head. (The film manages to sketch out analogies between the world-views of several embattled minorities, including Israelis, Palestinians and gays). The contrast in intellectual tone between the two films was, to coin a phrase, like night and day.

Then in Sunday’s L.A. Times I saw an interesting piece by Edward Jay Epstein that may explain at least part of the utter vacuity of “Miss Congeniality 2” and the average American film. Mr. Epstein points out that movies, per se, have ceased being the main line of business for American movie studios:

The numbers tell the story. Ticket sales from theaters provided all the studios’ revenues in 1948; in 2003, they accounted for less than 20% of the take. Instead, home entertainment provided 82% of the 2003 revenues. Further, print and advertising costs eat away at most if not all the theatrical revenues, but the studios retain most of the money they garner from home entertainment. All of this has transformed the way Hollywood operates. Theatrical releases, despite the blinding allure they hold for the media, now serve essentially as launching platforms for videos, DVDs, network TV, pay TV, games and a host of other products.

I seem to remember a homily that claims your heart is likely to be found where your treasure is. I guess the same goes for your brains.



P.S. If anyone thinks I am worshipping at the shrine of serious world-cinema here, I'm not; I really prefer light entertainment, a commodity that is commonly made in crassly commercial America. But successful light entertainment usually needs more smarts than serious world-cinema, not less.

posted by Friedrich at April 1, 2005


I haven't read Epstein's book, but I would caution that he's a bit more fond of conspiracy theories than one would prefer in a putatively serious writer - go to his site,, and you'll see why I mean. This is not to say that his assertions with respect to the motion picture industry are false, but clearly they deserve an extra degree of scrutiny.

Posted by: Peter on April 1, 2005 7:44 PM

Aw, shucks, I should have known better than to take a writer appearing in the L.A. Times Sunday Opinion section at face value.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 1, 2005 8:10 PM

However trustworthy (or not) Epstein may be, he's right that theatrical release isn't nearly as important as home entertainment these days. I haven't seen the 20% figure that he cites, but many movies are released in theaters these days essentially as a way to publicize the forthcoming DVD (which is being released closer and closer to the theatrical-release date).

For some reason it still seems to matter to some Americans that a movie has gotten a theatrical release. I wonder why. I understand that Japan, for instance, has a thriving straight-to-DVD movie scene. A favorite director of mine, Takashi Miike, for instance, has made many movies that were meant to be released on DVD without any theatrical release. It makes sense to me. I'd love to see such a market develop in the States. I guess we have a bit of that in the Skinemax/softcore world, but it apparently doesn't compare to what they've got in Japan.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2005 10:09 PM

It's "the long tail" again. If the money's in the niches, the mainstream will starve for talent. And as the smart viewers each move to their niches, the remnant of the "mainstream demographic" tends dumbwards.

Posted by: Julian Morrison on April 3, 2005 2:15 AM

"If the money's in the niches, the mainstream will starve for talent."

Yes, but is the money in the niches? From what I can see on sale, given the choice, most people still prefer mainstream-style movies (i.e. typical hollywood vacuity.)

It would be _nice_ to think that the world has grown up and we're all smarter now - but Hollywood-style films sell, and 'sophisticated' films do not. Go figure.

Posted by: Harvey on April 3, 2005 4:09 AM

See the Wired article, "The Long Tail",

Summary: the money to be made in the many itty-bitty niches vastly outweighs the mainstream, if you can reach it. Old tech couldn't; modern tech can.

BTW, It's not that people are smarter. People always were smart, but focused. One person's focus isn't another's, so the aggregate intersection (mainstream) picks out those areas where everyone cares a little. Ergo the mainstream appears dumb. This is a statistical artefact and an unfair calumny on the human species!

Posted by: Julian Morrison on April 3, 2005 5:20 AM

While I realize that the original posting is really about how changes in movie viewing habits have influenced changes in movies themselves, I think readers might also be interested in knowing that they can see "mass market" movies as they were originally meant to be seen -- in a grand old (restored) movie palace, the "Loew's Jersey," in surprisingly convenient (to NYC), Jersey City. (The theater is only a short walk from the big PATH station in Jersey City. And there are PATH stations at 34th St., 23rd St., 14th St., 9th St. Christopher St. and the World Trade Center.)

This weekend they showed all black & white, wide screen films: Woody Allen's "Manhattan," "Jail House Rock," and "The Haunting." In the past they've shown other "mass market"-type classics, including, I believe, "Gone With the Wind" and "Ben-Hur."

The theater has a webpage on the "Cinema Treasures" website, which is where I learned about these weekend showings. Here's the webpage address:

The wonderful "Cinema Treasures" website itself (with pages dedicated to cinemas all over the country -- including, probably, your own childhood favorites) can be found using any search engine.

A sad reminder:

New York City fans of "true" movie going should hustle themselves over to the wonderful moderne Beekman which is scheduled to be closed and demolished in about two (?) months. (The theater was designed by the successor firm to Reed & Stem, the co-architects of Grand Central Terminal, and also designed, I believe, the famed Cincinnati "Radio Box" Union Terminal.) The Beekman is, so it seems, every serious NYC film goer's favorite movie venue. By the way, Cinema 1, 2, 3 is also scheduled to close -- although this venue is already, from what I hear, a shadow of the original Cinema I & II.

(I hope I've read the original posting correctly -- I'm reading it from a library PC, and a good number of the letters have been, for some reason, transformed into Chinese characters!)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 3, 2005 11:07 AM

I'm reading "The Long Tail" and it's quite intriguing. As for whether or not the article's predictions are true...well, I certainly hope we'll see this trend develop in the future!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 3, 2005 11:56 PM

"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."

Heck, even "Collateral" even though Cruise is in it...for once he's cast appropriately.

You'll feel better.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on April 4, 2005 6:54 PM

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