Thursday, June 05, 2014

Smaller audiences, global audiences and focus groups are homogenizing movies

As I sat down to watch the latest X-men movie, I got the feeling that I had seen this movie before. "Isn't this the tenth time I'm seeing the exact same movie?" I asked myself. The answer, after getting home, was that the complicatedly-named X-men: Days of Future Past is the 7th X-men movie since 2000, and that there are two more sequels on the way in 2016 and 2017, at which point we will have had nine X-men movies in 17 years. This goes along with five Spider-Man movies since 2002, with two more scheduled for 2016 and 2018, three Batman movies since 2005, three Iron Man movies since 2008, and so on.

Then I remembered a recent piece in The Atlantic explaining the present suffocating homogeneity of movies. The author, Derek Thompson, says it's so because "studios are making fewer, more expensive films, there is much more risk riding on each project. Hollywood mitigates that risk in two ways: safer subjects and more testing." As well, "Hollywood has become sensational at predicting what its audiences want to see. And, ironically, for that very reason, it's become better at making relentlessly average movies." While I'm put off by the annoying preponderance of superhero movies, Thompson points out that not only is the trend towards superhero movies, but it's also towards ordinary movies that are neither excellent nor terrible.

It's unfathomable (or maybe only slightly fathomable based on the way people act in old movies, TV shows and novels) today, but Thompson writes that there was a time when 60% of Americans would go to the movies on a given weekend. Americans bought an average of 20-30 movie tickets per year, a number that's now at 4. As a result, studios make fewer movies and have a far greater need for these movies to succeed financially. They are also far more dependent on overseas audiences for revenue, meaning that a movie like "12 Years a Slave" is less likely to be made than it once was, because it theoretically does not appeal to audiences in, say, Seoul or Beijing unlike another Transformers movie, no matter how insipid the latter might be.

The other reason for homogeneity, which discourages risk-taking, is that studios have refined and mastered the art of understanding what audiences like. Although Thompson only mentions typical domestic viewers, there is no doubt that studios take into account the tastes of audiences outside of America considering the extent to which the sensitivities of the Chinese government play a role in shaping Hollywood movies. Thompson writes that "studios are so worried about what audiences think—and so skilled at soliciting their feedback—that they ensure that the next blockbuster always reminds audiences of the last blockbuster."

It's not the case that audiences are dumber, as popular thinking would go, or that studios have run out of original ideas. It's not that there's a shortage of original ideas, or that people today are too dumb to enjoy good movies, but that studios, which release far fewer films than they once did, have figured out how to make each release count. Viewers, such as myself, who went to see X-men because I like to eat popcorn and don't mind an X-men movie, have helped Hollywood make each release count.

With China projected to become the world's biggest movie market by 2020, we're unlikely to see this trend change at any point in the future. Although this may well change before China becomes the world's largest movie market, China allows just 34 imported films to be shown in its theatres each year, an artificial bottleneck that encourages not just homogeneity but also greater watchfulness to things like clothes hanging outside to dry in scenes depicting Chinese cities. If Chinese audiences are anything like Korean audiences, sci-fi and superhero movies like Avatar or Transformers are likely to dominate at the expense of movies like 12 Years a Slave or No Country for Old Men, which are much more difficult for foreign audiences to understand for a number of reasons.

Just about every country has seen its culture altered by the intrusion of American pop culture. What's interesting is the prospect of American pop culture being altered by the importance of overseas ticket sales. While nine X-men movies in less than two decades might seem ridiculous, in a world where Chinese audiences count for more than American audiences, we might as well see another nine X-men movies between 2020 and 2040, a prospect that might be utterly ridiculous but not so ridiculous as to not be profitable.

No comments: