joker123 Why Movies Stink (NY Post September 2001) » Jonathan Foreman
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Every summer since “Jaws,” which inaugurated the era of the event movie, people who love films have complained about the awfulness of Hollywood’s latest efforts.

But this summer the movies were worse than ever by a huge margin – so much so that it’s hard not to wonder if the decline might not be terminal for the form.

After all, this wasn’t just the summer of “Pearl Harbor.” It was the summer in which one of the best American films was “American Pie 2.”

How did this happen?

To some extent, almost everyone involved with movies is to blame.

We have a debased young audience that will go and see anything that is marketed cleverly enough. We have a movie industry that no longer seems to work along the principles of profit and loss and is dominated by studio bosses who began their careers as agents or bankers and do not actually love movies, unlike the Sam Goldwyns and Darryl Zanucks of the past.

Most significant, we have a corps of screenwriters who are drastically less educated and less skilled in the craft of the storytelling than their predecessors. Unlike even the worst hacks of earlier eras, these scribes grew up never having read Dickens or Dumas.

Other culprits include greedy superstars with too much power and the distant corporations that now own the studios. There are also the spendthrift directors who nearly bankrupted the studios into their present state of funk.

Film journalists and critics may have much to answer for as well.

Whit Stillman, writer-director of “Metropolitan” and “The Last Days of Disco,” cites a critical tendency toward “deprecation or undervaluing of almost anything ‘high’ – in intent, aspiration, content and form – while so much that’s correspondingly ‘low’ is given the benefit of all doubt and imbued with imaginary excellencies.”

But attributing blame for the decline of Hollywood movies involves weighing a lot of factors, some old, some new, plus some choosing between chickens and eggs.


The box office failures of movies like “Out of Sight” and “Three Kings” suggest that no audience exists for good, smart, mass-market movies featuring convincing characters, strong narratives and powerful themes. Ordinary American moviegoers once loved such fare.

Sure, Gen-Y includes some cinephiles, but you have to wonder if young audiences today would even be able to sit through classics like “Casablanca” or “Citizen Kane.”

Baby Boomers and older Americans largely stopped going to the movies back in the late 1970s, when cinemas fell into disgraceful disrepair and VCRs became available en masse.

When new, comfortable cinemas were built, many of them went into shopping malls and cineplexes – the haunts of young people. So older viewers continued to stay away, at least as a matter of habit.


All the great American movies until the 1970s were made by people who experienced war or the Depression. Today, movie makers are largely children of the upper middle class who have never known hardship.

If they don’t come from Southern California, they’ve been seduced by its hedonistic culture, so isolated from the rest of the United States and the world.

The industry is dominated by ignorant hustlers and techno nerds, who aren’t even good businessmen. They are responsible for the grotesque waste that makes a big Hollywood film such an astonishingly expensive product.

Unlike the moguls who preceded them, today’s bosses have never been involved in the nitty-gritty of movie making. They have only a vague idea of how much things should really cost.


One of the bizarre things about the industry today is that no one appears to be interested in profits per se. Instead, people are obsessed with big numbers. Amazingly, it is far better for an executive to make $150 million on a movie that cost $140 million than $40 million on one that cost $20 million.

As writer-director James Toback puts it: “The only thing is to be in the top 10 of the year’s grossers if you want to keep your job. No one will pat you on the back for making a $12 million profit.”

Of course, companies that own the studios don’t expect their movie divisions to turn a profit. The real money is made on video and cable sales, merchandising and theme parks.


With the advent of cable, TV has become the preferred medium for screenwriters with talent.

TV offers less interference from nervous executives and a greater chance for glory. One leading TV writer, in the midst of penning a feature screenplay, told me his studio bosses told him that they didn’t actually like dialogue at all.

“Dialogue means you need better actors,” he said. “They want action because action’s controllable. It isn’t in the hands of a director.”


“The first weekend’s grosses have become much more important than the real bottom line number,” one retired distributor told me recently. So distributors and marketers no longer bother to nurture a film that might take a few weeks to catch on.

Either they spend a fortune on national advertising to “win” a first weekend, or almost nothing at all. There’s little interest in “platforming,” supporting a film as it’s gradually rolled out across the country. That requires an unacceptable amount of effort and thought.


If things continue to get worse, movies as we know them will be over. Most people will see features on a small screen with big pay-per-view premieres. An audience of 400 sharing emotions in the dark will become an extreme rarity. The cinema will go the way of the theater as a means of mass entertainment.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t hope. Perhaps the horrors of last week and the struggle to come will work a sea-change in Hollywood.


September 23, 2001





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