Here is how a recent television comedy project was described in a popular entertainment-industry trade publication:
“The show centers on a middle-aged single mother who despite her blue-collar lifestyle strives to give her loved ones all the joys of a normal life.”
The announcement is a kind of collective Freudian slip for the entertainment industry, which can be so sun-drenched and cosseted that it seems joyless and abnormal to, as they say, be a regular person and work for a livin’.
Years ago, Bob Newhart, the legendary comedian and the rare talent whose success spanned three decades, told me the story of doing an episode of his first comedy, The Bob Newhart Show, in which Bob and his television wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette, decide to turn over their finances to a “business manager”—someone who will pay their bills, help invest their money, and put them on an allowance. A business manager is someone that a lot of people in Hollywood have, delivering a service a lot of people in Hollywood think they need.
According to Bob, the episode was a total disaster. Not a laugh from the audience.
The reason Bob Newhart told me that story was that he and I were doing a show together and he wanted me to remember that normal people do not have business managers. Normal people pay their bills themselves once a month, in a grim ritual at the kitchen table.
It may slip their minds every now and then, but people in show business, it may surprise you, are for the most part painfully aware of how good they have it. And that complicates the development process. Coming up with new ideas, deciding which projects to invest in and which to reject, evaluating scripts and stories—running beneath all of these questions is an anxious and incessant bass line. Who are those people out there? What do they want to watch?
The truth is, American audiences are not terribly mysterious. They could not be clearer, or louder, about expressing what they’re interested in. Hollywood just has a hard time hearing them.
Pretend, for a moment, that you are going to start a multi-platform media company. (And if you are, please give me a shout.) How will you decide which projects to risk your start-up capital on? The first thing to do is pay attention to what kinds of stories audiences are already responding to.
For instance, among the 15 bestselling nonfiction printed and audio books during the first week of June 2022 were Crying in H Mart, a memoir about growing up in a Korean-Jewish family; Secret City, a sprawling history of gay Washington, D.C.; and Killing the Killers, a Bill O’Reilly audiobook about the hunt for terrorists. In other words, stories about American military heroes, history and culture, and families.
On television, the highest-rated—and in many cases the longest-running—series run to the same themes. Cops, military heroes like NCIS, complicated families like Modern Family and The Conners, and stories of the new Wild West like Yellowstone. And there’s no greater celebration of the American entrepreneurial spirit than Shark Tank.
A walk through the video-game aisle will tell a similar story. Some of the most popular games are American history reenactments, such as the Conflict series, Gettysburg, and Jane’s series on American weaponry (Jane’s USAF, Jane’s US Navy Fighters). Brothers in Arms was a bestselling World War II reenactment series and is on its way to becoming a television show.
It’s hard not to mention the most successful Broadway production ever, Hamilton, in which a multiracial cast sang and rapped their way through the founding of the American republic. The premise of Hamilton—the Founding Fathers, though flawed, were heroically engaged in the great work of building a nation—seems almost dangerously retro. But since you’re starting a media company, let’s keep it real: Retro schmetro, the show made pots and pots of money. Patriotic American history is a real moneymaker.
And what about movies? Since the turn of the most recent century, movie theaters have been clogged with superhero extravaganzas and science-fiction/fantasy spectacles. Those copyrights have been locked up tight by the existing media behemoths, so they’re out of reach for your studio start-up. But what else has been working this millennium?
The Passion of the Christ, Mel Gibson’s 2004 depiction of the final days of Jesus Christ, was graphically violent, controversial, and a gigantic smash hit. It shouldn’t have been too surprising that a story that’s been told over and over again for 2,000 years would still captivate audiences, but the movie’s success—to date it’s pulled in about $750,000,000—caught 21st-century Hollywood by surprise. It wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow with mid-20th-century entertainment-industry executives, of course. Biblical themes—from both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles—were a moneymaking staple for the first 40 years of Hollywood.
American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s 2014 depiction of military heroism and its personal cost, made about $600,000,000—second only to Transformers that year. After a slew of post–Iraq War box-office duds, somehow Eastwood managed to deliver a thoughtful, unvarnished patriot hit.
On May 27, 2022, Paramount Studios, the movie studio that most needs a hit, got one. Top Gun: Maverick opened to enormous success, and in its second week pulled in more than $500,000,000 in global box-office returns. It’s the biggest movie of Tom Cruise’s career, and it will probably hit $1 billion by the end of 2022, an astonishing milestone for a picture with no superheroes or wizards or Pixar characters. A sequel to a 36-year-old movie headlined by a 59-year-old movie star could easily be the biggest hit of the year.
What does all of this tell you about the new movie and television studio you’re about to launch? Well, for one thing, a successful multi-platform media company isn’t such a mysterious enterprise after all. Essentially positive, uplifting stories about wartime heroics, faith, American patriots, melting-pot chronicles, untold American stories add up to a multi-billion-dollar media powerhouse. If you were planning to jump into the entertainment business—and, again, if you are, give me a holler—the smart move would be to stick closely to those themes.
So why isn’t the collective brain trust of American show business doing exactly that already? Why does it seem like there’s a multi-billion-dollar opportunity for a motion picture and television company focused entirely on stories of American greatness? Why isn’t there an American Stories cable channel, streaming service, and movie studio, pumping out the kind of material that American audiences seem to want?
It has less to do with Bob Newhart’s concern that Hollywood is economically out of touch with America, and more to do with Hollywood’s philosophical distance.
People in Hollywood—like, say, people at Harvard and the Whitney Museum and CNN and the New York Times—are just a lot more ambivalent about America’s past and its future than the audience they’re trying to reach. It’s tempting to say that they’re too liberal for a conservative audience, but Lin-Manuel Miranda, the impresario of Broadway’s magnificent money machine, Hamilton, is about as liberal as they come.
The difference is, he likes America. It really starts there. When entertainment-industry insiders do give American stories the green light, they’re invariably big fat downers, dwelling on the injustice and nastiness of the past, as if the history of the United States was an unbroken series of unforgivable crimes against humanity. It’s not entertainment, it’s homework, for a college class titled “Why America Sucks 101.” It’s no wonder movie audiences are about to hand over $1 billion to Paramount Studios for Top Gun: Maverick. It’s a Fourth of July picnic of a movie.
Hating America is a great way to run the political-science department at an Ivy League university, but it’s a terrible way to run an entertainment company. A little patriotism, a cool fighter jet, maybe even a little bit of Jesus here and there—when you start your movie studio, stick to that.
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.