The world, I don’t need to tell you, is falling apart. That’s bad. On the other hand, bad years for the world often mean terrific years for us in Hollywood. The rule is: When times are lousy, people go to the movies. That’s what they did during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Those were banner years for the business. Audiences were desperate for a few hours of relief from the relentlessly terrible economic news, and after 1941 they were aching for something to distract them from war in Europe and the Pacific, telegrams from the War Department, from a world that was falling apart.
In the earliest days of the movie business, in fact, motion pictures delivered literal relief from the outside: Theaters were among the few places that had air-conditioning in the summer and plentiful warmth in the winter. Sometimes people went to the movies just to be more comfortable. It didn’t matter what was playing on the screen.
Some of the biggest movies of the 1930s were sunny and upbeat fare—musicals, romantic comedies, the merry lives of the super-rich. Maybe when you’re surrounded by poverty and depression, it’s nice to lose yourself for a few hours in glamorous Manhattan skyscrapers and elaborately costumed dance numbers.
And if you look at a list of the top movies from 1941 to 1945, you’ll still find lots of musicals, Westerns, romantic dramas. You could spend the whole day at the movies and never know there was a war on. That is, as long as you didn’t pay attention to the newsreel.
Decades later, when the world was falling apart (again) in the late ’60s and early ’70s, among the biggest movies were Doctor Zhivago, The Sound of Music, Love Story, Airport—you get the idea. When young American servicemen are dying in Southeast Asia and crazed death-cult hippies are murdering everyone in the house at 10050 Cielo Drive, who can blame audiences for thinking, Let’s go see “Paint Your Wagon” because Clint Eastwood sings! Or A VW Bug that’s sentient? I’ll grab the car keys!
Show business, in other words, is at its most successful when it counter-programs against a world that’s falling to pieces. But “counter-program” is probably not the right phrase to use, because it’s highly unlikely that any movie-studio mogul, way back in 1939 (or, for that matter, 1969) commissioned a focus group and hired a marketing research team to figure out just what the national mood was.
People were selling apples on the street. The national mood was pretty easy to discern then. And then later, when the children of the Greatest Generation were old enough to read and adopt revolutionary left-wing claptrap, nobody in show business needed to conduct a national survey to know that the nation was having a slow-motion nervous breakdown. Just look at Hank Fonda’s daughter! She’s over there yukking it up with the commies! Quick! Somebody green-light Tora! Tora! Tora!
Studios and television networks operated mostly on instinct back then, which was easier to do because the men—and they were 99 percent men—who ran those companies were deeply connected to the great, chaotic American Experiment. They weren’t producing movies and TV shows for a distant, unfathomable crowd of nobodies somewhere out there in the dark. When you include yourself in the term “American viewing public,” it’s a lot easier to know what projects to invest in. They’re the ones you’d watch yourself.
These days, no one goes on instinct. Instead, studios and streamers send out “content mandate” manifestos that describe, in hilarious weasel words, what they’re looking for.
“We’re interested in subversive, social commentary through the lens of comedy,” one network announced recently. They didn’t just say “looking for comedy” or “interested in satire” or any other conventional description of a genre. Asking for comedies just didn’t seem sophisticated enough, perhaps. Announcing to the creative community of Hollywood that what they really wanted to produce was “funny comedies about funny stuff that’s happening these days” doesn’t have the marketing-science pop of “social commentary through the lens of comedy.”
In fact, describing anything as seen “through the lens of comedy” pretty much guarantees that it’s not going to be funny.
Another studio sent out this request for pitches: “We want diverse projects that are aspirational, rom-coms, nothing too dark (but still edgy and noisy, with major impact points in characters, setting, and tone).”
Honestly, I have zero idea what that means.
I have been told that a certain streaming service is searching enthusiastically for a project that is “emotional, but not sad,” and another that is looking for “a big, funny, energetic comedy that avoids polarizing and discordant cultural fault-lines, but that has the potential to deliver water-cooler moments and conversation starters among viewers both online and in office/workspace/etc.”
Imagine any old-time Hollywood mogul saying those words. Imagine Robert Evans, the last of the larger-than-life studio chiefs, the guy who ran Paramount Studios in the early 1970s and made Chinatown and The Godfather, saying something like, “We are looking for stories that celebrate cultural touch points in an inclusive way via the mode of humor.”
When the world was falling apart 50 years ago, nobody in show business stopped to look. They just pumped out glittery musicals, screwball comedies, action-packed gangster pictures, star-studded disaster movies, and something called The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. They gave us hilarious, relevant comedies like All in the Family and The Jeffersons, but also sweeping family stories like the Godfather movies, space epics like Star Wars, and jokebook pictures like Kentucky Fried Movie and Airplane.
Not these days. Now, they send out “content mandates.”
Some history: During the 1980s and 1990s, when the world was emphatically not falling apart, show business did very well. Comedy, especially, had a Golden Era. The big broadcast networks were clogged with half-hour situation comedies. Half of them were about families with quirky, hyper-articulate children, and the other half were about groups of young adults behaving in a sexually liberated way in urban environments. There were arch dialogue exchanges, clever storylines, and tiny—almost minuscule—emotional stakes.
That’s because from roughly 1983 to 2007, America and the world experienced one of the greatest increases in personal wealth in the history of mankind. Except for a few blips here and there, money seemed to grow magically and exponentially, in financial markets, in real estate holdings, in retirement savings accounts. The world, which had seemed on the brink of nuclear destruction, suddenly felt more prosperous and peaceful.
As a result, show business got fat and lazy. It’s reflected in the thoughtless way each studio invested in a streaming service. When interest rates are low and money is essentially free, you can convince yourself of pretty much any financial stupidity. But it’s also clear from the tired, out-of-gas Marvel “Cinematic Universe” and the meaningless blah-blah of the multiple content mandates that each studio and streamer puts out. And it’s evident in the rickety finances of movie studios and streamers, which are discovering that despite spending billions of dollars on content, they have no idea what the American viewer wants to watch. And why should they? They don’t know any American viewers.
Right now, show business ought to start cleaning up. That’s what happened before, when the world was on fire. This is a perfect time for show business to reconnect to its audience and correct its recent mistakes. But if the content mandates are any indication, Hollywood is about to blow this opportunity to make book on tragedy. And then, there won’t be a Hollywood the next time the world falls apart.
Photo: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
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