How many times have you seen a movie or TV show and wondered: Why the hell did they make that? It's a common question, I know I've asked that myself many times. Driven by curiosity, I did a little thinking, and I came to realize that there are two basic drives behind Hollywood decision making: The Money Drive, and The Ego Drive.
Now I know that a bunch of you readers are sitting there going: "Hey, this yahoo left out the artistic drive!" True, and I must say that I'm insulted by being called a 'yahoo,' but, to explain myself, it takes ego to make art and consider it worthy of public consumption. Besides, this is Hollywood we're talking about, and art is not going to get a film made unless it appeals to someone's desire to either swell their wallet or their head.
THE MONEY DRIVE: It's often condemned by self-styled artists as akin to prostitution, but it is the backbone of the entertainment industry. It is essentially the desire to make money by making movies and TV shows that will appeal to the widest possible audience. A lot of the time it creates crap, diving for the lowest common denominator, and once they’ve found the bottom they usually start digging, but since 90% of all human creative endeavour produces crap, it's well within norms.
However, it is not a complete artistic wasteland. Perennially popular films – the ones that get hailed as classics, enjoy long lives at the box office and home re-watchings - do not aim for success via appealing to fads and the basest vulgar tastes, but instead aim for making an all important emotional connection with the audience through telling an entertaining story that the audience can understand and relate to. This can even include intelligent dramas that offer challenging ideas on controversial subjects, because people can accept controversy, and having their beliefs challenged, as long as they can relate to the story, find it entertaining, and not insulting.
THE EGO DRIVE: This can also be called The Ego/Snob Drive. It's basically where a film's makers don't aim for popular success, but the sort of praise bestowed by critics, festival audiences, and Academy voters. In fact, when it's all about the Ego Drive they actually want the film to fail at the box office. Because box-office failure allows them to play the martyr, slaughtered unjustly by the crude, vulgar, and base Philistines of the general public, because they had the "courage" to "speak truth to power."
Usually such talk is code for making a film that people didn't find entertaining, or challenging, just dull and preachy. However, Hollywood is all about spin and image, and if you spin your failure just right, you'll get invited to all the right parties, get unlimited critical praise (whether deserved or not) and use that image as the "courageous artiste" to get more deals to make more films that fewer and fewer people want to see. Because a lot of the folks who control the money; usually control other people's money, want to be called courageous, and artistic as well, and be one of the cool kids.
Studio executives used to work with a mixture of the money drive and the ego drive, but sans the snob element. Their ego was based mostly on commercial success of their pictures. It wasn't always in balance, with certain studios more interested in churning out as much product as possible, as cheaply as possible, putting out the occasional "A Picture" to appease the critics and win awards, while others insisted on a certain level of quality. They wanted to make movies to make money, but they wanted them to be well made movies that made money.
However things have changed.
Hollywood has become more isolated from the average moviegoer than ever before, and that isolation has spread into the executive suite. Glamour is blinding, and when the desire for acceptance by the glamorous replaces the desire for acceptance by the audience, the industry is screwed.
Sure executives can be fired if they lose enough money, but the threat isn't as terrible as it once was. How can a CEO fear being fired since their contract, which they wrote themselves, has a severance package that could feed Bangladesh for a year? Also, fired executives usually move on to similar or better positions at other companies, networks, or start their own production companies - usually, again, with other people's money.
So you get a widening divide between movie-makers and movie-goers, and it's starting to show in the revenue stream. Movie ticket sales are erratic, but usually trending downward, and becoming more and more centred on fewer and fewer franchises, network TV viewership is down, and people are turning away from mainstream entertainment, and going to the more niche-friendly lanes of cable specialty channels and the internet.
How can this be changed?
It's all about balance.
Hollywood must learn find a balance between the need for praise from their peers, and the need for money. My suggestion is looking for praise by producing quality movies that are also appealing to the general audience.
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