Over the weekend, two articles from well-respected film critics have come out that point out the dumbing down of the American movie audience. In the first, Roger Ebert points out the fact that the intelligent movie-going audience is getting older and the youth in America seem unable to escape the “groupthink” mindset – choosing films that everybody sees rather than venturing into something daring and different:
The obvious implication is, younger moviegoers don’t care about reviews and have missed the news that “The Hurt Locker” is the best American film of the summer. There is a more disturbing implication: word of mouth is not helping the film in that younger demographic. It has been Hollywood gospel for decades that advertising and marketing can help a film to open strongly, but moviegoers talking with each other are crucial to its continuing success. That has been Summit Entertainment’s game plan for “The Hurt Locker,” which opened in a few theaters and has steadily increased its cities, becoming a real success without ever “winning” a weekend or benefiting from an overkill marketing campaign.
In another article over the weekend, The New York Times’ A.O. Scott writes about “Spoon-Fed Cinema,” in which he reflects Ebert’s point, specifically talking about the abundance of mindless CGI glut films.
Both articles are eloquently written and say much of what needs to be said about today’s movie-going audience. However, I think that both articles miss out on who is really to blame. Both Scott and Ebert seem to point the finger at “dumb Americans,” with Ebert even posting video clips of stupidity in action (Miss South Carolina is the prime example). Ebert briefly mentions the studios’ misguided promotion of bad movies, and Scott’s column talks about movie studios regurgitation of what we have already seen as a way to satiate the wants of the public.
But is it really that American audiences are getting dumber? Or are the studios really to blame?
One thing that neither of the critics mentioned, is the issue of accessibility. Both Ebert and Scott live in huge Metropolis’s where they likely have access to any movie at any time. However, having grown up in Middle America and with experience living in rural Minnesota, I know the pain of being cut off from intelligent cinema offerings.
Just look at the theatre counts on Box Office Mojo – G.I. Joe was released in 4,007 theatres while The Hurt Locker is only in 535 theatres (which is a lot for an art film). If you live anywhere besides a big city or major suburb, you simply don’t have access to the smart movies that critics want you to see and are forced to settle with what’s there. When I was in college in Morris, MN it was 45 minutes to the nearest big theatre. That theatre had 6 screens and usually offered only the big-budget super-wide releases. I wanted to see the smart, Awards-friendly movies (really badly), but it was 3 hours to the Twin Cities.
There is also an issue of cost. The young audiences that Roger Ebert chides for not seeking out smarter fare are not wealthy. They usually seek out the matinees and cheap theatres and what is close (so as to not spend gas money). If you look at my living situation right now, I live 5 minutes from a huge Carmike Cinemas, which has about 20 screens, and usually plays some of the smaller released films. Right now, it is not playing The Hurt Locker, but it is playing G.I. Joe and every summer popcorn film that’s still popular. Tickets for that theatre are $5 every weekday, except Friday. The nearest art house theatre is about 15 miles away (20-25 minute drive). At the Uptown Cinema, the matinee tickets are $7 and evening tickets are $10.50. The financial option is the mega-screen.
Now of course there are exceptions to every rule. The same mega-screen theatre raises its prices to $10 on Fridays and Weekends, but my point is that it is not only the American movie audiences that are to blame for the changing scope of movies. The real culprit in my opinion is the movie studios. They force-feed the most impressionable movie audience (teens) with CGI garbage and make the smart films accessible to only the Uptown elite. Here’s a challenge: can you name a film that had a huge ad-campaign, received a very wide release, was acclaimed by critics, and was unsucccessful at the box office?
Who do you think is the most to blame – audiences or studios? I’m interested to hear your opinion (examples are appreciated).