Hollywood's Peculiar Relationship to Profit

As a classical musician, I can claim a certain connection with the Hollywood creative industry as I’ve performed the solo violin tracks for a number of film projects. At the same time, I remain enough of an outsider that I can also claim a to be a dispassionate observer or, better yet, a somewhat savvy consumer of Hollywood’s product.

With that introduction mind, I want to bring up a question that has puzzled me for some time. Why does the Hollywood entertainment industry continually place products into the public domain that are virtually guaranteed to fail?

Of course, you could never get the movers and shakers that inhabit the studios and offices of the “entertainment capital” to admit that that’s what they do. In response, they always unleash a smokescreen of assorted rationalizations having to do with “artistic” rights or the lack of sophistication of the audience. They may simply ignore the issue entirely, since like-minded “artistes” are busy praising them for their unbounded “courage.” The Orwellian self-congratulation hits its frenzied climax each awards season as honors are bestowed on films that are, at best, ignored and at worst, are simply repellent to the general audience. I recently had a conversation with a very well known actor friend who was dumbfounded by my statement that “No one watches the Academy Awards any more.” Since he attends them every year, he couldn’t imagine how I could utter such a blasphemy. Yet, he had to nod his head in resigned agreement when I explained that most people don’t want to see the types of films Hollywood is putting out any longer, so why should they be interested in watching narcissists hand awards to one another.

Today, the purpose of many films is simply to attack every traditional value and often they seem to compete in trying to establish an ever-lower common denominator. For the business of Hollywood, this could be explained if the profits such films generated warranted more of them. But they don’t, and the bottom line doesn’t lie. Numbers are numbers and profit is profit, even in Hollywood. Or so it would seem. Many producers, directors, and actors appear mysteriously oblivious to this. Could it be that foisting their insular beliefs on the public is even more important than business success? Are they so disdainful of Middle America that they would rather lose money than deliver a product that will be received by the sort of audiences that Hollywood used to take for granted?

One answer lies in a change in attitude that first emerged in the 60’s and even earlier in the world of fine art. A film wasn’t considered “artistic” by critics and other filmmakers unless it portrayed the dark underbelly of life. Anything else was just “fluff”. Films and TV had to do more than merely entertain – they had to teach, or worse, preach. I remember as a kid getting sick of watching “Marcus Welby, MD” because the show evolved from entertainment into a dramatized lecture on the illness-of-the week.

It has become much more pernicious than that, though, as Left-wing politics has swallowed up the Hollywood elite. How else to explain the dearth of offerings that showcase the best of our military, organized religion, business (I know – a particularly tough sell right now), and stable families.

There have been five Medal of Honor winners in Iraq and Afghanistan. Each is an incredible story of courage, sacrifice, and selfless love shown by these servicemen. Yet, nothing chronicling these heroes has come from our filmmakers. Instead, we are given films like “In The Valley of Elah”, a movie that portrays soldiers as psychopathic murderers of their own comrades. It lost a fortune, but what the heck, it painted the picture that Liberals in Hollywood choose to believe about our military. I remember reading with some amusement an article detailing the dismal failures of (anti) Iraq War movies, positing the excuse that “Americans are just tired of hearing about Iraq.” Yet many more movies about heroism were made during World War II and they have continued to be made ever since. “Saving Private Ryan” made a fortune in 1998. Another World War II movie – “Defiance” – is coming out in a few days. Why aren’t Americans tired of World War II movies? Could it be, 0that Americans are simply tired of seeing heroes depicted as loons and monsters?

How about religion? We have probably forever passed the era where Spenser Tracy, Bing Crosby, and Pat O’Brien were the face of Catholic priests to the masses. But do we have to be subjected to a non-stop parade of crooks, pedophiles, and sociopaths that seem to be the only type of clergy people in Hollywood think exist? And how do those films fare at the box office? Liberal Hollywood can take any five of their anti-religious offerings and their combined net profits won’t compare to the money Mel Gibson’s much-maligned “Passion of the Christ” made at the box-office.

Perhaps the best example of the marketplace success of wholesome movie-making comes from Pixar. Every one of their films is a masterpiece of plot, characterization, script, and overall artistry. Leaving aside that they are brilliantly animated, their tales encompass universal values and tell gripping stories that simply and directly connect with the audience. And they make a fortune in revenue. Little kids are not the source of big bucks. Grownups are equally, if not more, engaged by Pixar movies and it is grownups (with money) that make them so successful.

I thought it would be fun to take a look at the actual numbers, which are easily obtainable at Box Office Mojo.com. I was particularly interested in the figures for 2007 since the winner of the “Best Picture” Oscar that year was “No County For Old Men”, certainly the darkest film ever nominated. It is, in my opinion, a particularly vile, obscenely violent exercise in pointless nihilism. (I know, it was supposedly well made and the acting was great but I’m just a regular guy – not a film critic.) Its worldwide box office take was about 162 million, no doubt bolstered by its having won “Best Picture”. More illuminating are its opening weekend figures where it took in a mere 7.75 million. However, “No Country For Old Men” was the biggest box office grosser of the five films nominated for “Best Picture” that year, with “There Will Be Blood” coming in at the bottom grossing just over 76 million worldwide. By comparison, Pixar’s 2007 release “Ratatouille” made a whopping 621 million, opening to an initial weekend gross of just over 47 million! What about the war movies I mentioned? “In The Valley Of Elah” made just 29 million worldwide and opened to a spectacularly small 1.5 million, while “Saving Private Ryan”, released in 1998 when admission prices were lower, made 481 million worldwide with an opening weekend of 31 million. Finally, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ” opened to the tune of 84 million and took in a worldwide gross of over 612 million.

As I said, the numbers don’t lie.

One would think, then, that the bottom line might make a greater impact. Yet it doesn’t seem to. The public clamors for more wholesome offerings. They beg to limit offensive TV shows to the post 9:00 p.m. time slots. When the re-release of “Old Yeller”, old reruns of “I Love Lucy” and CD’s of 40 or 50 year old music out-draws and out-earns current offerings, a clear message is being sent. That message, so far at least, seems to be falling on deaf wallets. So much of Hollywood insists that their negativity has no impact on youth while at the same time they spend hundreds of millions to advertise products that are doomed to failure. Then, after all is said and done, the studios seem mystified when their profits shrink to dangerously low levels.

The saddest aspect to all this is that Hollywood can rise to deliver an uplifting message that will garner them robust profits, when they so choose. “Saving Private Ryan”, the aforementioned “Passion” and all the Pixar movies prove beyond any doubt that a vast audience exists craving a more positive cinema experience.

Now, no one would argue that deceit, corruption, and rogues should get a pass. Far from it. After all, it is the tension between good and evil that is the foundation of all good storytelling. Yet, were it not for their Left wing agenda-driven mindset, the film and TV industry executives could have far greater financial success simply by making products that celebrate the positive aspects of American values.

If only Hollywood producers and directors would listen more to their own pocketbooks.

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