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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

calling bullshit on: blaming audiences for Hollywood’s sins…

… as The Christian Science Monitor does in a piece by staff writer Gloria Goodale. Under the headline “Why intriguing ‘Inception’ is the Hollywood exception,” Goodale says:

The boffo audience response to a nearly 2-1/2 hour film full of creative mumbo jumbo about how dreams work and startling visuals – folding city streets, for instance – raises the question of why there aren’t more original films such as “Inception.”

Apart from the fact that how she presents this conundrum — is a movie crammed with “mumbo jumbo” actually something “original” to be celebrated, or is the writer suggesting that audiences are being snookered somehow, tricked into parting with their money? — comes the wildly contradictory reasons she uncovers to answer her own question.

[T]he larger answer is what both film and psychology experts call a “culture of familiarity,” in which consumers are continually nudged toward the known rather than the unexpected.

“Market research has pushed this notion that audiences should get what they want and expect,” says Seton Hall University film professor Christopher Sharrett. Nowadays, audiences are completely familiar with the routine of cards being handed out at movie screenings, he says, “and the final film is tailored to the information that comes back to the market research from those cards.”

This process of carefully managed expectations is in stark contrast to an earlier era, the pre-blockbuster days of the 1950s and ’60s. “The ’50s and early ’60s weren’t radical but people paid to be provoked and challenged,” he says, referencing such films as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “Seven Days in May.” The “corporatization” of mainstream movies has utterly changed that, he says, pointing out that today’s films must not only sell hamburgers and T-shirts, but insurance and other extensions of the corporate brand.

That’s why Hollywood doesn’t regularly give us “original” films, Goodale says: because they’re too risky, and because audiences have shown that they’ll still regularly shovel money in the direction of movies that cater to those carefully managed expectations.

But wait just a second! Just because people pay to see those movies doesn’t mean that they won’t pay to see movies that thrill them far more by being unique and unexpected… as the popularity of Inception is demonstrating perfectly well. This is where Goodale goes off the rails:

Evolutionary biology may suggest deeper reasons for our attraction to the familiar, says Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Continued exposure to the same thing reduces a sense of danger, he says via e-mail. Once safety is established, he points out, we’re comfortable with the idea, and humans, generally, prefer comfort over discomfort.

“On the flip side, we tend to perceive a lack of familiarity as bad … and, thus, we avoid those things. Hollywood simply takes advantage of this effect,” he says, trading the familiar for the more adventurous.

This is preposterous. Human beings have not evolved, in a biological sense, since the 1950s and 60s, when — Goodale implies — we were perfectly happy to be bombarded with provocative and challenging films. So “evolutionary biology” cannot explain why Hollywood was able to give us unfamiliar movies half a century ago but simply appears unable to do so 95 percent of the time today.

I complain often about how stupid mainstream audiences are, because it frustrates me that people will so readily pay for crap. But people who are hungry — for food, for entertainment — will take what is offered to them. That fact should not be used as evidence that spoiled table leavings are the only thing they’ll take, given a choice.

As seems to be the case with Inception. After a spring and early summer of cheap dog food, here’s a nice juicy steak, and audiences are gobbling it up, with every indication making it look like the film is gonna hang tough at the box office for the rest of the summer. Weekend estimates over this past weekend, its third, peg it as taking in another $27.5 million, for a total of more than $193 million in North America alone; worldwide as of this past weekend, it’s closing in on $400 million. The relatively small drops it has taken over its second weekend — 32 percent — and third — 36 percent — indicate continuing interest, and with no serious competition through August, it’s gonna be here to stay, if not at the top of the box office, certainly near the top.

It proves that we’re not necessarily “attracted to the familiar” but simply stuck with whatever familiar stuff we’re given. Blaming “evolutionary biology” for Hollywood’s cowardice sound an awful lot like blaming the victim and excusing Hollywood as merely doing what it has to in order to survive… even with lots of evidence that demonstrates that simply isn’t the way of it at all.



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  • Funwithheadlines

    Audiences hunger for intelligent fare, but we get served junk because Hollywood has mostly be taken over by the folks who care more about profit than art. So they will willingly sacrifice art if it means more profit. And since their spreadsheets show they can milk profit by releasing Awful Movie III – The Search for Loose Change, that’s what they release.

    Smart movies are hard to predict. Ooh, hard to predict = scary!

  • CB

    This is preposterous. Human beings have not evolved, in a biological sense, since the 1950s and 60s, when — Goodale implies — we were perfectly happy to be bombarded with provocative and challenging films. So “evolutionary biology” cannot explain why Hollywood was able to give us unfamiliar movies half a century ago but simply appears unable to do so 95 percent of the time today.

    Oh, but it does explain it! See, in the 50s and 60s, audiences were used to seeing the unexpected and challenging in movies, and so the unfamiliar was in fact familiar. Once Hollywood started shoveling out homogenized processed movie-food, that became what was familiar.

    Which clearly means it’s the movie goer’s fault for liking the familiarly expected, instead of the familiarly unfamiliar.

    It makes perfect sense!

    In Bizzaro world…

  • Sok

    She’s so close to getting it right. What’s changed in the intervening period isn’t biological evolution but market research evolution. (Although I have to wonder if the ratio of pap-to-ambrosia today is about the same as it was in the 1960s… the ambrosia’s just lasted longer.) We can gather and average more data that we’ve ever done before, and by releasing movies that cater to that average we get dull, predictable, but more-or-less safe bet movies. (Another wondering point: how much of Airbender’s white-washing came from a spreadsheet rather than Shyamalan?)

    One problem is that we don’t always (usually?) know what we want, or what we want isn’t as straightforward as we’d like. Heck: evolutionarily speaking, we really hate being unsettled and frightened, right?

    So, yes, her source is correct: ““Market research has pushed this notion that audiences should get what they want and expect”. For a steady, small return-on-investment that’s probably true. I also agree with Mr. Lehman there:

    The challenge, says Mr. Lehman, “is to take audiences through the familiar but use it to lead them to the new, the exciting, and fresh.”

    The evolutionary navel-gazing’s unnecessary for the article. The problem isn’t how our brain’s wired, the problem is gathering the right data… or knowing when to say, “Sod the data, this is going to be a good film.”

  • Jurgan

    Yeah, anyone who invokes EvPsych is probably discrediting themselves. It mainly has to do with supercapitalism. Follow the link for a great read, but basically the idea is that the economy has restructured itself over the past forty years to the point where corporations are unable to sacrifice short term profits for long term goals, and certainly not for any greater good.

    In the past, most theaters only had one or two screens, and movies didn’t come out near as often. When one movie played for months on end, you didn’t have to worry about fierce competition for the Friday night crowd. You could take a chance with a risky movie, and even if it was an opening flop word of mouth might help it recover. These days, though, a movie isn’t guaranteed a very long run, and so the studio has to do whatever it can to win short term box office takes. As a result, they target reliable movie goers (i.e., teenagers) who may not want anything unusual. If a movie doesn’t open big, they lose money quickly, stock prices might drop, and the CEO gets fired by the board. People buy and sell stocks so quickly that they can jump ship at the first hint that the studio isn’t doing everything possible to maximize profits. Of course, there’s always a chance that an unusual movie could open up a new audience, but that’s a big risk when your job’s on the line. In other words, it’s not the public who are afraid of risk, it’s the studios. At least I can understand why, though.

    But people who are hungry — for food, for entertainment — will take what is offered to them. That fact should not be used as evidence that spoiled table leavings are the only thing they’ll take, given a choice.

    Whoa, dude, I just got it- Hollywood is run by Psychlos! You know, there’s that scene in Battlefield Earth where Terl (John Travolta’s character) is trying to figure out what the humans eat, so he lets them escape to see what they choose to eat. All Johnny can find is a rat, which he eats, and so Terl assumes that’s his favorite food and feeds him nothing but rats from then on. It all makes sense! Maybe that’s why so many actors are Scientologists- they’re fighting the Psychlos who run Hollywood!

  • Jurgan

    While you were still learning how to SPELL YOUR NAME, I was being trained in market research!

  • So. Fucking. Sick. Of. EvPsych.

    That is all.

  • Jurgan

    So. Fucking. Sick. Of. EvPsych.

    That is all.

    Oh, that’s just because your brain isn’t designed to deal with science. See, men are better at science because we had to use observable fact, like the size of tracks and the direction of the wind, to hunt prey. Women are better at more emotional things because they had to share the cave with others and keep the peace while the men were out. Anyway, once you finish your period you probably won’t be so angry about this any more.

  • Evolutionary biology may suggest deeper reasons for our attraction to the familiar, says Lou Manza, a professor of psychology at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pa. Continued exposure to the same thing reduces a sense of danger, he says via e-mail. Once safety is established, he points out, we’re comfortable with the idea, and humans, generally, prefer comfort over discomfort.

    Manza: Furthermore, giraffes have long necks because they kept stretching for higher branches over many generations, for instance.

    Goodale gets her biology lessons from TVTropes.

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