Does Hollywood Ideology Affect Hollywood Revenue?

My last column offered hypotheses on why America feels that the entertainment industry is having a negative effect on the way things are going in the country these days. I theorized that many Americans feel that the entertainment industry does not reflect their values, and consequently avoid paying for its content. I provided support for this argument in the form of several different studies.

damon green zoneMatt Damon and Director Paul Greengrass on the set of the 2010 flop “Green Zone”

There is little doubt that the arts attract people with more liberal perspectives. That their values should appear in content is therefore not surprising. These values, including political ideology, may take many forms. In some cases, they are simply a one-off joke about Sarah Palin. In other cases, there are full-blown television episodes and movies that directly espouse values, morals, or political ideology often associated with the left-wing of our political spectrum. I’ve been in countless story sessions for both TV and film. Some writer-producers are eager to inject their ideology into the content. Some are not. But the ones that do are always Liberal. Sometimes that’s just fine. You can’t make Bulworth or Bob Roberts, under-appreciated and entertaining films, without Warren and Tim and their Liberal ideals.

I know what I’m getting when I go to see those films. Generally speaking, as long as the content is entertaining, I don’t care. Unless I’m a shareholder of the company producing that content.

Which brings me to today’s question: does Hollywood’s ideology cost shareholders revenue?

First, let it be known that there is absolutely no way to prove this assertion. We cannot conduct a properly controlled scientific study to provide a definitive conclusion. We can only look at circumstantial evidence and open a discussion. If one looks at comments on the articles here at Big Hollywood, there seems to be support for this theory. Many commenters feel that Hollywood is morally bankrupt, its denizens hypocritical, and that the product quality just does not make it worth spending time or money to consume content. Carl Koslowski’s article suggests that Hollywood is not seeing the world through the average American’s eyes, so how could they produce entertainment that does? He points out that even the box office results of Avatar suggest that only 20% of Americans have seen the movie – the most popular movie in a decade.

Meanwhile, The Blind Side did extremely well in “fly-into country”, and a low-budget 2008 Christian film called Fireproof made 120 times its investment. Why? Grassroots support from the Christian community, because the film played directly to them. People are more apt to pay to see content that they identify with. The average American doesn’t make a ton of money like Hollywood employees do. One in ten are out of work. They’d rather spend time with their families then pay money to see something that means nothing to them. It’s no wonder that all the anti-Iraq War films have flopped. It’s not just that most Americans are sick of hearing about the war, but most paying Americans likely believed that a pro-American, pro-soldier, anti-terrorist perspective isn’t what these films were going to offer.

A few years ago, Hollywood started paying lip-service to producing “faith-based” content. I have not seen much in the way of that kind of content. I’m not even talking about overtly political or even controversial content. I’m talking about content that pulls back on sex, gratuitous violence, profanity, and content that portrays the “usual suspects” as the villains (CIA, NSA, cops, priests, private contractors, corporations, mercenary armies, our present or future Armed Forces). All of those choices are lazy, anyway..

So what’s going on? Don’t tell me that Rupert Murdoch is a closet Liberal. Don’t tell me that the other studio heads, or senior management at the corporations that own them, have secret meetings to advance a Socialist agenda. What is the deal with the apparent contradiction that exists between corporatist senior management allowing Liberal talent free reign, when it seems likely that this is not in the best interest of shareholders, and does not maximize revenue?

For that answer, you have to go back to my earlier column. Hollywood is run on fear. I believe that the moguls frankly do not care what ideology their content espouses, as long as the portfolio in the aggregate makes money. And it does make money. A lot of money. And while theatrical admissions are declining, ticket prices are increasing, and they are trying to throw 3D and IMAX at audiences to keep them engaged. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why take a hard left turn into producing content more directed at mainstream America and take on any perceived, associated risk?

That, however, is exactly what they should be doing. Because they are overestimating that risk. While we cannot definitively prove that current content is leaving money on the table via alienation of audiences, it is unquestionably worth the risk to produce content that is more inclusive. There is a quiet, but budding, movement in this arena. All the tools are available. The distribution pipelines exist. The audiences exist. A profit model exists. Some of my colleagues have begun to move in this independent direction – not simply out of a desire to make truly “values-based” content, but also to take advantage of the disruption in content production that the internet has created.

Hollywood is approaching an inflection point. Sure, it will continue to milk the current cow until it tips over and dies. But the trends are becoming clearer – the traditional model is slowly failing. Eventually, a new trend will develop. We are starting to see it — shows like Justified, Lost, Heroes, and 24 do fill this gap. Still, Conservative financiers interested in earning superior returns on their investment, wholly outside of the Hollywood studio system, who want to produce more meaningful content can find those opportunities.

They just need to ask.

Next time, I’ll look at a more controversial topic: does Hollywood produce “art”?


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