Are American Audiences Really Stupid?


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 MojoG.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).

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  • I think it’s hard to support original, well made, thoughtful movies because they’re so dang hard to find. Uptown and Lagoon and Edina usually carry interesting independent movies, but it’s can be a chore to drive to those theatres where the tickets cost more and you have to pay for parking. Also, have you noticed that Lagoon has been screening a lot of mainstream movies lately? It’s disappointing.

  • Honestly, I don’t want to watch a depressing a$$ film about something that is still going on and shouldn’t be. MAYBE that’s why younger audiences aren’t watching HURT LOCKER?

  • Owen

    A lot of people go to the movies to get away from the realities of life as we know it…not get engulfed in it, such as the Hurt Locker.

    I’m not saying that is the reason for the discrepancy, but it could at least be part of it.

  • Darryl

    The studios are obviously going to do whatever results in a higher payday for them, and since audiences are more than willing to sop up the insulting garbage like G.I. Joe and Transformers, the studios are hardly getting a message that this is not wanted, in fact based on the box office numbers it would appear to be the exact opposite.

    While I’ll readily admit that the studios take a share in the responsibility, no matter how accessible they make the mind-numbing nonsense, it won’t succeed unless people go to see it. So if the nearest cinema to see an intelligent movie is out of reach or budget, that doesn’t mean that you have to instead spend your hard earned money making yourself stupider for 2 hours – VOTE with your ticket stub by choosing to do something else instead of destroying brain cells in the Transformers theater – go read a book, converse with friends, surf the internet. I think the vast weight of responsibility falls on the audiences who admit these movies are worse than terrible, but still pull out their wallet and fork over their dollars without a second thought.

  • Darryl :

    So if the nearest cinema to see an intelligent movie is out of reach or budget, that doesn’t mean that you have to instead spend your hard earned money making yourself stupider for 2 hours

    Amen, Darryl. That would mean daring to get outside of the “groupthink” mentality, though, which so many people are afraid of (not everybody goes to movies alone like me!)

    I think Owen makes a good point, also, but does escapism have to be dumbed down? What about Woody Allen movies like ‘Purple Rose of Cairo.’ Those are pure escapism, fun and smart.

  • I went and saw Hurt Locker tonight after reading this article. I thought it was very good, though there were a couple weird slow motion shots that seemed out of place (first explosion and the close up of shell hitting ground during standoff in desert, both moments totally took me out of the movie). Could have been about 20 minutes shorter, but one of the best movies I’ve seen this summer.

  • As a marketer serving low budget indie films, my first priority for film exposure is not the cinema. Too expensive on a low budget and we can’t compete with studio fare.

    What does everyone think of online cinema and the ability for everyone with access to the internet to see those non mainstream films that are talked about but not appearing in the small town cinema? Would you watch at home or is the experience of viewing in a popcorn selling, giant screen, stadium seating cinema worth more to you? It is a question, not a judgment.

  • I would definitely watch at home. I have On Demand cable and whenever there are offerings that are still in theatres, I try to check them out. The price can be a little steep, though.

  • AJ

    I guess I’d agree with your reasoning, though I have no real experience to back it up. I grew up in MA. and lived only a half hour or so from Amherst where there is an arts cinema that would play all the stuff that didn’t make it to the regular local screens. In college in Boston there were two really great indie theaters and even the regular theaters would get some of the art-house flicks. There was even a small (2 screen) theater near where I worked in Brookline, MA (suburb of Boston) that only played indian/bolywood films.

    Now I live in queens, NY now and the normal mainstream 6 screen theater that is down the street from my house is playing the Hurt Locker (which I just saw and was really good). I think it also might be playing G.I. Joe on two screens.

    Maybe I’ve been spoiled but I’ve always had access to the “smarter” movies out there, and never really realized how hard it might be for some people to see non-studio or smaller studio produced films.

    I don’t think the people in NYC have more refined tastes or are smarter than the anywhere else (how could they be, they root for the Yankees for christsakes?), I wonder why the smaller films don’t make it to the rest of the country? It’s like the field of dreams, if you show it and market it, they will come.

  • Smaller films are not shown on as many screens as summer blockbusters because theaters typically make sure that as many rooms show the summer blockbusters as possible. There is a huge emphasis on making sure audiences don’t have to be turned away due to lack of space, especially on opening weekends. With all the marketing for these movies, it really shouldn’t be a surprise that smaller films get lost in the mix. Even YouTube is starting to show ads for big name movies on their starting page. And I used to think YouTube was the go-to place if you wanted to find trailers for obscure or foreign movies.

    Still with the internet, I’m surprised anybody would ever walk away from a movie without feeling satisfied. They (should have) known going in whether it would be a movie for them or not. Especially with the rising cost of tickets prices. 12 dollars? Some DVDs don’t even cost that much, and you can keep those.

    Actively finding something you want to enjoy takes just a little bit of research, but honestly, people would be surprised how much just one leap of faith in a movie they haven’t heard of before can get them going. I wanted to see a different movie one day, and read about this Thai movie I might enjoy. Sure enough. I enjoyed it, suddenly I’m looking to see what other movies the actors or director was involved, and that lead me to 2 more movies I enjoyed. One of those 2 movies, the director was actually one of 6 directors (!), and suddenly I’m checking out what work they have done. These movies aren’t even obscure on global terms, they are all very recent, and some of them were domestic hits in Thailand.

  • ben

    I bought a 1 year cinema pass at cineworld. I only now see that they have a sort of limited range of movies. But even if I hadn’t bought the pass, the cineworld has cheap parking. I don’t really have the time to choose an arty movie – dumb wam bam thankyou mam is fine

  • Brandon Cooley

    I am 15 and this is the sort of thing that I think about when I am at high school listening to two students talk about the new movie “Zombieland.” The fact is that none of them care about great films like we do. However, I can understand why they don’t spend more time finding a movie to go see at the theater. Cost, Time, and the MPAA rating should be taken into consideration.

    I grew up watching Star Wars, E.T., and Toy Story at the age of three and that’s why I am obsessed with films. I used to get aggrivated when I heard students talking about the new blockbuster, but now I just ignore it.

    I also can’t wait to see The H

  • Brandon Cooley

    I accidentially pressed the enter button.

    What I meant to say is that I can’t wait to see The Hurt Locker when it comes out on DVD.

  • Kjb

    I think it’s a case of cause and effect. The movie industry is just what it says it is – an industry. They rate their movies on how much money it will make for the studio. Occasionally they throw some money at a smaller film to keep the widest fan base possible, but mostly it’s all about the blockbuster.

    Since the studio’s bottom line is to make money, who should their target audience be? As many people as possible, yes? Since intelligent viewers can “dumb down” to watch some CGI, but less intelligent viewers won’t/can’t “un-dumb” their preferences, it makes more sense to appeal to low-brow sensibilities. That way, the studio can sell the maximum number of tickets, with the minimum amount of risk.

    Put it this way;

    You are a studio executive. In common with the rest of humanity, you do not have the gift of foresight and cannot predict the future. A bad failure could seal the end of your career, but you need to make money. You are pitched two different films, but can only say yes to one.

    Film 1 – A period drama, documenting the lives of 3 Lithuanian women in the 1950’s as they struggle to free themselves from oppression; both at home, and from the Russians. Would cost 13 million to film and could make back 35 million if it sells well.

    Film 2 – A space adventure, following a brave space captain fighting off the interglatic advances of some aliens. Already has a merchandising deal, a tie in with McDonalds and a comic book deal. Would cost 250 million to film and could make back 400 million if it sells well.

    Which would you pick? Since the second film is a much safer bet and much more likely to make it’s budget back, you’d probably go for that one, because the studio exec just wants to stay in business.

    This has a knock on effect which leads us to the position we are in today. Studios churn out “safe” films because they want to make money. The only films most people get to see are “safe” and therefore, most people don’t to see films which could stretch them.

    American viewers have not been given the chance to see films that might challenge their beliefs. That, coupled with the ferverent anti-intellectual streak in American society has led to the media swapping ut the word “mainstream” and inserting the word “dumb”.

    In short: The studios have created their perfect viewers, easy to please, easy to amuse, easy to control.

    Who cares if you can’t hear the dialogue for the scrunch of the popcorn, chances are there wasn’t anything worth hearing in the first place. Just sit back, enjoy the CGI and wave goodbye to “intelligent” films.

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