The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Is Hollywood ready for the new Depression?

January 12, 2009 | 10:31 am

StockBeing from the William Goldman School of "Nobody Knows Anything," I'm convinced that it's dangerous to try to read too much of anything into why a movie succeeds or fails or is right for the times. So I'm always a little skeptical when something momentous happens in the world -- whether it's a terrorist attack or a nasty economic collapse -- and cultural commentators suddenly pop their heads out of the rubble to exclaim: "Everything is going to be different now!" Trust me, I've done it myself, and I've always hated myself in the morning because I've always turned out to be wrong. Pop culture is the ultimate cockroach. It can't be stopped, even by a nuclear attack. It keeps rolling along, either downhill or onward and upward, depending on whether you're impressed or appalled by the success of "American Idol," Lil Wayne or "Marley & Me."

With America's economy in a huge tailspin, we've been deluged with a wealth of new stories about whether bad times will make for good movies. As far back as early November, the Associated Press was predicting, as their headline put it: "Economy May Make Crowds Shun Gloomy Films." In recent days, we've had more pondering from pundits. Joe Morgenstern, the Wall Street Journal film critic, just weighed in with a lengthy essay speculating about how Hollywood will respond to the current slump while another critic, Alonso Duralde, compares and contrasts the cravings of today's audiences with the vast throngs who haunted theaters during the Great Depression.

Their conclusions? Let's just say that when you start prognosticating about how Big Events impact moviegoing habits, you tend to predict what you wish would happen. I say this with all due respect, since Morgenstern is one of the few critics I read with relish, but Joe's conclusions about what movies will work in an economic slowdown are basically an endorsement of the kind of movies Joe (and I) like. Or as he puts it, studios can turn the downturn into a rare opportunity:

"Provided they follow the safest policy, which is not playing it safe at all--not settling for musty formulas when audacious ideas are at hand. 'Slumdog Millionaire' may be copy-protected by virtue of its originality, but the lesson it has to offer could hardly be clearer -- audacity can win the day."

Admirable sentiments indeed but studios today aren't exactly built for speed. They respond to events of the moment with the alacrity of a T. rex. Warners already has its seventh installment in the "Harry Potter" series securely anchored on Thanksgiving 2010. Disney has "Cars 2" in its pole position for June 24, 2011, with a host of cozy franchise fare like "Alice in Wonderland," "Toy Story 3" and "Rapunzel" ready for 2010. Unless you're making a quickie horror film or teen comedy, it's hard for a movie studio to react to current events. If you want timeliness, turn on the radio -- pop music has always been far more plugged into the zeitgeist than Hollywood.

Why is it so hard to predict where Hollywood is going? And is it really true that we'll be besieged by musicals by year's end? Keep reading:
 

It is true, of course, that 2008 was a great year for musicals, notably "Mamma Mia!" and "High School Musical 3," which were both breakout hits. You could even argue that a film like "Sex and the City" actually fulfilled all the genre requirements of a musical, simply without the music. But that didn't stop "Sweeney Todd," released barely six months earlier, from being a box-office disappointment. In short, looking for a rational explanation for Hollywood failure or success is a fool's game.

In the past few years, Hollywood has released a host of dramas about the war in Iraq and terrorism in the Middle East, nearly all of which have tanked at the box office. Is it because audiences didn't want to see movies about Iraq? Or is it because Americans didn't want to deal with the war in Iraq itself, whether it was in the form of video on cable news or a movie in a theater? Would the movies really have worked better if they'd arrived five years later, when we were more in the mood to assess the folly of war? Of course, if you factor in my theory about predictions being largely based on what you wish would happen, a conservative critic would argue that the movies about Iraq failed because Americans shunned stories from squishy Hollywood liberals who saw the war only in a negative light.

Most of the current news stories wrestling with the economic slump's effect on moviegoing habits take us back to the Big One -- the 1930s Depression -- when, according to conventional wisdom, moviegoers sought out screwball comedy and musicals as an escape from hard times. But how does this account for the immense popularity of Warner Bros. gangster films during the same period, films that -- for their time -- were full of graphic violence and grim tidings about what evil lurks in the hearts of men. Uplift was not their message. Leonard Maltin has argued recently that the other genre that was popular in the 1930s -- Universal's string of monster movies featuring Bela Lugosi as Dracula and Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein monster -- was also based on escapism, since the frights were a much-needed release from the cares of the day.

But every time I try to find a convenient link between moviemaking and exterior events, the connections seem more tenuous the more you study them. One problem is that cultural historians rarely take into account the fact that Hollywood is often driven far more by economic necessity than timeliness, so it's often impossible to tell what's sheer exploitation and what's simply a response to popular taste. Many cultural observers -- starting with, well, me -- have noted that as early 1970s America became increasingly unnerved by the trauma of Watergate, filmmakers responded by churning out a string of paranoid thrillers, most notably "Three Days of the Condor," "The Conversation" and "The Parallax View."

But for all their popularity, paranoid thrillers were probably eclipsed at the box office by an even more potent genre -- the disaster movie. In fact, the mid-1970s were chock-full of popcorn pictures about one calamity after another, from 1974's "Towering Inferno" and "Earthquake" to 1975's "The Hindenburg" and 1977's "Black Sunday." On the other hand, to deal with that nagging issue of economic necessity, were all those disaster movies a response to the wrenching trauma of Watergate and a failed presidency? Or were they simply rushed into production to take advantage of the huge grosses of 1972's "The Poseidon Adventure"?

Tracing cultural change is a tricky business. In 1967, the movies were more violent than ever, spilling blood everywhere you looked, with the theaters full of such pictures as "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Dirty Dozen," "In Cold Blood" and "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly." It's perfectly reasonable to see the explosion of gore as a filmmaking response to the Kennedy assassination, the Watts riots and the escalation of the war in Vietnam. But it's just as logical to see the films as a response to the collapse of the studio system and the demise of the dreaded Production Code, which had prevented filmmakers from freely exploring sex and violence.

So I won't be surprised if studios start telling themselves that when money's tight, it's time to greenlight some feel-good stories. But trying to second-guess moviegoer tastes is like trying to time the stock market. Both the movies and the market are driven by irrational forces beyond anyone's control. Everyone knows that moviegoers want good movies but no one has ever been able to figure out how to patent that secret formula. It's too tricky a recipe: A great book can make a bad movie and a bad filmmaker can ruin a good script, but sometimes the most chaotic mess turns into a marvelous souffle. All we really know is that we know a good movie when we see one, whether the Dow's scraping bottom or running with the bulls.   

Photo of traders on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange by Spencer Platt / Getty Images

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