by Gail Jarvis
by Gail Jarvis
The 78th Academy Awards ceremony has come and gone. It was accompanied by the usual hype combined with more than a little controversy. But neither hype nor controversy could reverse the public's declining enthusiasm for this passé event. The television audience for the event has been decreasing over the years and this year's audience was substantially smaller than last year's. Some of those who did watch admitted that they had not seen most of the nominated films nor did they intend to. Many women confessed that they watched simply to see the gowns worn by starlets.
This year's nominees exemplify the widening divide between films preferred by the public and those honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This divide has resulted in a serious decline in movie attendance. Some analysts predict that the trend away from movie theater attendance is a permanent one. Already some films are only shown in theaters for a brief period before being converted to DVDs. And, although DVD rentals are a significant income producer, the loss of theater ticket purchases will seriously impact Hollywood's bottom line.
Members of the Academy seem to be blissfully unaware of the forces of the free market. They continue to honor films that only attract niche audiences and generate mediocre box-office results. Soon, however, Academy members must begin to connect the dots between reduced movie ticket sales and reductions to their earnings.
Being somewhat cynical, I have always considered the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences to be a sham organization. Even its creation in 1927 seems to have been a subterfuge by movie moguls to prevent the unionization of actors, directors and writers. The Academy was the brainchild of Louis B. Mayer who wanted to create an organization of "professionals" and raise motion pictures to the level of "arts and sciences." Of course Mayer knew that making movies was just another business and not some high form of art. But I suspect he thought that people who regard themselves as "professionals" and who are part of a serious "arts and sciences" endeavor would certainly not unionize; engage in collective bargaining or strike.
But a few years after the Academy's creation, a group of actors rebelled against the repressive studio system by forming a union: the Screen Actors Guild. At first, furious studio bosses refused to negotiate with the newly formed Guild. But eventually, and begrudgingly, studios acknowledged the Guild's legitimacy. Guild members remained active in the Academy and began to take themselves more seriously. Over the years the members of the Academy have developed an inflated sense of their own importance.
As we know from past experience, the Academy rarely awards Oscars based on artistic merit. Prior to the awards ceremony, members of the Academy are inundated with advertisements and other public relations ploys seeking votes for a particular film or performer. Other, less than ethical, behind-the-scenes arm-twisting techniques are also used to solicit votes. Often awards have been based on the membership's whim of the moment. Also, an actor or director might be denied an Oscar if he is temporarily out of favor with the Hollywood community. Some Oscars have been awarded to atone for the dearth of honors for members of underrepresented groups, and awards are sometimes the result of the Academy's "feel-good" efforts to encourage a sociopolitical agenda.
In recent years the tendency to award Oscars in order to promote sociopolitical agendas has gripped Hollywood. And directors' propaganda efforts continue to grow bolder. Consequently, many Oscar-nominated films of recent years have had limited appeal for the viewing public. Although such films have not been box-office successes, the Academy continues to thumb its nose at the viewing public by honoring them.
The Academy justifies inadequate box-office receipts by referring to the films as "serious" or "weighty " — the implication being that the public's esthetic sense is lacking. But these manipulative terms no longer fool the public. Nor is the public duped when the making of such films is called "courageous," or when that old PC canard, "they promote healing" is trotted out.
A contemporary argument heard in Hollywood maintains that, as a result of a cultural lag, society's mores haven't caught up with the progressive attitudes being promoted in motion pictures. In other words, society stubbornly clings to traditions that are out-of-fashion, possibly reactionary. But factions in Hollywood cannot agree as to whether or not their agenda-driven films are altering the public's opinions. Some make the extreme claim that motion pictures have taken over the family's role of imparting values. However, others insist that a film, regardless of how powerful, cannot cause a radical change in a person's core values. Watching a film is like attending a religious revival — you may leave the tent vowing to abandon your sinful habits, only to resume them three days later.
Because a box-office success can produce enormous revenue, studios go to great lengths to promote their films, often engaging in actions that are questionable and in some cases illegal. Studio employees are paid to pose as audience members and are filmed praising a movie that they have supposedly just seen. Remarkably, it was discovered that Sony, parent company of Columbia Pictures, had created a fictitious movie critic, "David Manning", who purportedly wrote for a Connecticut newspaper. Using this fake critic's name, Sony manufactured glowing reviews of films. When this fraudulent practice came to light, the State of Connecticut fined Sony $326,000.
Authentic movie critics are also subjected to undue influence by studios. Although outright payola is difficult to prove, other inducements are definitely proffered. Movie junkets are a common practice: Studios reward friendly critics with all-expense paid weekend getaways. Critics are invited to special advance screenings where they are wined and dined and get to meet and interview film stars. Studios treat movie critics in the same way that lobbyists treat members of Congress.
Of course, like most large industries, Hollywood has its own lobbying group: the Motion Picture Association of America. This organization not only engages in the usual lobbying techniques to shield the profits of major studios but also performs other protective, and often controversial, services. It has been accused of allowing studios to subvert the film-rating system and its heavy-handed copyright protections have been sharply criticized.
Would Hollywood need to employ lobbyists and use devious promotional tactics if it would produce films to entertain rather than to indoctrinate? Studio heads and investors might prefer to produce such films but they would be passed over by the Academy. The Academy, seemingly unconcerned about profits, would probably nominate controversial films from independent studios as it did this year. And this year's nominees didn't excite the viewing public. A brief look at some of them will illustrate why.
Nominees included a film about a woman who postpones her sex-change surgery in order to help her illegitimate son who has been arrested for hustling. (The song written for this film was also featured at the Academy Awards.) The hero of another nominated film is a pimp and drug dealer yearning to become a Hip-Hop musician. The song from this film, "It's Hard Out There for a Pimp," was performed at the Oscar ceremony after the performing Rap group agreed to omit some of the song's more extreme obscenities. (It won the best song award.) Another of the films being touted celebrated Palestinian suicide bombers. The nominations also included yet another of the industry's stereotypical racism films, a theme that is always extremely popular with Hollywood. And this year's version walked away with the top prize. But films about gays and lesbians are becoming more fashionable with Hollywood and this year's nominees included two: one was a movie about a gay writer (it got the best actor award) and the other about the trials and tribulations of a long-term, and adulterous, love affair between two gay sheepherders (it received the best director award). Possibly, combating homophobia will replace racism as Hollywood's cause célèbre.
While there may be an audience for these kinds of films, a majority of the viewing public has grown a little weary of movies designed to play on their sympathies for causes they disapprove of. The Federal government may be able to force them to accept things they don't like, but Hollywood is subject to the forces of the free market. The public can decide whether to buy or abstain from buying movie tickets. In recent years the public's refusal to buy movie tickets has seriously reduced Hollywood's profits.
And Hollywood has other problems as well. Its primary audience, ages18 to 34, is not only growing older but it is also abandoning a night at the movies for video and Internet games. Other former moviegoers are staying away from the multiplex theaters because of escalating ticket prices; the noisy rudeness of today's audiences, and the annoying increase in on-screen advertisements. Affordable video rentals are further reducing movie theater attendance.
We don't know how, or even if, Hollywood will deal with these problems. Certainly, some directors will continue to produce unpopular "message" films. However, they will have to be satisfied with niche audiences. And even studios seeking mainstream audiences may have to revise their earnings expectations. The key word in Hollywood these days is "downsizing." It has already undertaken austerity measures — it will make fewer films and some of its big stars have agreed to accept lower salaries. Still, even more drastic changes may be needed to end the unprecedented box-office slump.
March 7, 2006
Gail Jarvis [send him mail] is a free-lance writer.
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