A. O. Scott, the venerable, initialed movie reviewer and societal critic for the New York Times, wrote an article a few years ago on a disease he saw plaguing movies entitled “Open Wide: Spoon-fed Cinema.” Scott’s diagnosis: “Forty is the new dead” for cinema as mass infantilization engenders profit at the box office, while stealing profit from culture and the soul. I have thought a lot about this article off and on since its 2009 printing. Initially, I agreed Scott’s diagnosis was a chronic condition of Hollywood. Now I believe it to be a seasonal affliction.
Scott’s articulation of his diagnosis leaves no doubt he fears cinema is saddled with a chronic condition. Always concise and quotable, Scott reminds us studio financing is built on conventional wisdom and “Conventional wisdom is always happy to ignore…nuances.” The result is “the studios have, with increasing vigor and intensity, carried out a program of mass infantilization,” before providing the parting advice, “If you want to make a mature film for mature audiences, make sure it’s a cartoon.” It is bleak, scathing criticism, but taken in whole, it dazzles rhetorically and is punctuated by witty summation.
Geek Knowledge = Obsession
Admittedly, I am Scott’s audience. A critique of culture writ large through the lens of a motion camera’s lens, Scott’s essay is for the cinephile, not the cine-familiar. I consider movies a personal hobby, but as an adherent to geek culture I cannot simply dabble in my hobbies, I must excel in them. I love watching movies, ergo I must know movies. Pedigrees (awards), performance (box office gross), cast lists (Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, anyone?), trivia; the list is too long to be an expert in all, but efforts must be made.
Increasingly, knowing movies means tracking a movie’s gross receipts, predominately opening weekend. Beyond a fun set of trivia (What movie grossed the highest box office worldwide? Avatar. What movie grossed the highest box office domestically adjusted for inflation? Gone With the Wind.) opening weekend box office receipts help predict if a movie is economically successful (What’s the movie’s multiplier?), going to get a sequel (Did it make more than its budget?), connecting with its audience (What was its CinemaScore?), in summation: worthy. I cannot call myself a cinephile and be ignorant of the box-office, the box-office is the driving force of cinema!
Box Office Tracking
Or, rather, the driving economic force of cinema. A. O. Scott’s lament is the box office discussion is the only discussion: “Any further discussion — say about whether it’s a good movie or not — sounds quaint, old-fashioned, passé. Get a clue, grandpa.” It’s a trap easily set. The press covers movie grosses like covering a horserace, as the measurement of success. Higher volume of money = better. Faster to set dollar amounts = better. Longer in theaters = better. Marketing spins the economic success of a movie (“The #1 Movie in America!”) as a direct result of being enjoyable.
The substitution of box office gross as a shorthand for quality is willed into truth by the economics of movie-making. Studio film profits are heavily weighted to early box office receipts with most of opening weekend ticket prices go to the studio(s)/distributor(s) and theaters sharing the profits as a movie ages. Fragmented media and always streamable content makes seizing the zeitgeist more important across pop entertainment. If a movie is not a hit on opening, it better be seeking an Oscar bump or become a hit internationally or the studio(s) will be taking a write down.
Trailer Baited Trap
And yet it does not take paying to see Wrath of the Titans or Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice at a movie theatre to see box office gross is NOT a substitute for a movie review. Economic success is success albeit limitedly defined, but economic success does not equate to artistic achievement or audience enjoyment. “The aggregate of receipts shows that a lot of people like going to the movies, but not necessarily that they like what they see.” Touché Mr. Scott.
Yet we buy into the box office trap. We declare a movie as must see if it looks awesome from the trailer. Awesome trailer with broad general appeal results in large crowds opening weekend. Large crowds = large gross = quality film = more crowds = more gross. The broad appeal awesome-looking-trailer movies are epic action films and low-brow comedies: we shut off our minds and enjoy (or don’t enjoy) the spectacle. There’s nothing wrong with that, since “We like big, dumb popcorn spectacles,” but binge only on them and studios will churn out “a program of mass infantilization.”
We have a movie disease, and a symptom is sequels.
Yet eight years is an eternity in an opening weekend obsessed movie world, and since A. O. Scott’s diagnosis I have begun to see the mass infantilization of movies as a seasonal affliction. Sure, we catch a cold every time Michael Bay is allowed to make another movie, but a dose of George Miller will clear your sinuses of Misogyny Bay and blow your ear drums free of charge.
Summer Blockbusters, Winter Oscar-bait
The very box office chasing that led to fears of mass infantilization may be creating fertile ground for a new culture. The old movie going seasons since Jaws, Star Wars, and their ilk coined (with hard cash) the term “blockbuster” have been blockbusters in the summer, serious art in the winter. The big, mass appeal spectacles attracted kids out of school and families with leisure time, while the serious art films were released later to bait The Academy. Once Oscar season was over but before the blockbuster heated up was the graveyard to dump under-performers.
Front loaded opening weekends are changing all that. No longer can a movie find its audience over an extended release like There’s Something About Mary or My Big Fat Greek Wedding. The bank is made in the first weekend for studios so any legitimate competition eats your lunch. Studios have thus taken to keep similar movies from opening on the same weekend and avoid any weekend with a mega property. When Marvel chooses an opening weekend years in advance rival studios decide to schedule their openers earlier or later.
Groundhog Day Means Six More Weeks of Oscar Predictions
This has led to a lengthening of the blockbuster season. Once thought of as starting on Memorial Day, blockbusters are released when there is an open weekend with little competition. Beauty and the Beast opened in mid-March to a record setting $174 million. Star Wars, once exclusively a May blockbuster, now has a scheduled pre-Christmas opening annually through eternity.
Oscar season has also extended beyond winter, and not because of Groundhog Day. Oscar contenders are still released to general audiences late in the year. However, winning awards at prestigious summer festivals has all but ended the practice of a limited release the last weekend in December to be the last movie Oscar voters see.
Roadshow vs. Binge Culture
How our culture consumes movies generally – the good, the bad, and the ugly – is helping to stave off mass infantilization.
Movie exposure and consumption used to be on a roadshow timeline. Roadshow theatrical releases were where a film opened in a limited number of theaters around the world before the nationwide general release. A “roadshow” was akin to a touring theatre production except film stock allowed playing in multiple cities at a time. Roadshows were events; the movie was typically an epic lasting up to four hours or more (i.e. Ben-Hur), there was an intermission, souvenir programs were available for purchase, and you had to reserve tickets. No rolling up five minutes before show time and buying a seat. You either paid in advance or missed the spectacle. Full orchestras would even play specially commissioned overtures before the movie started.
Roadshows ended in the 1970s, but had a lasting impact on how movies penetrated the culture. Long roadshow engagements built excitement for a movie before the majority of the population had the ability to watch it. After TV was a staple in middle-class homes, roadshows presented a spectacle you could only experience in a movie theatre. Popular movies would run for months and really popular movies would have multiple runs since there was not yet a way to watch at the viewer’s convenience.
Even though roadshows died with the multiplex – “I can see a film multiple times a day because the theatre has more than one screen?!” – movie runs were still measured in months. Titanic opened on December 19th, 1997 and ran continuously for 41 weeks, not an unusual length for a successful film. Typical blockbuster cinema runs today are half as long. Competition for eyeballs from broadcast and cable TV used to be mitigated by large release windows. A movie would have a theatre run, then released on home video, than to pay-per-view, then to pay cable movie channels (i.e. HBO), and only then to broadcast TV. Titanic hit home video on September 1, 1998 and HBO in April of 1999. Release windows were the new roadshows. Want to be watch the greatest movie of all time? Pay a lot for a temporal entertainment spectacle or wait for cheaper, easier to repeat viewings.
In contrast to roadshow culture, a screen in every pocket and has created binge culture. Viewers now demand instant gratification; waiting a week for a new TV episode results in a snarky #FirstWorldProblems tweet. The driving force of entertainment is not an exclusive experience so much as a never-ending experience. If anything we should be worried less about mass infantilization and more about mass fragmentation.
Want video content? There’s the cinema, broadcast TV, cable TV, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime, and the giant time killer: YouTube. Fragmentation has shrunk movie release windows in an arms race to make money off a product that is often pirated on the internet the day of or prior to theatrical release. Compare Titanic’s release windows to the release schedule of Doctor Strange:
- Theatrical Release: October 20, 2016
- Digital HD (Amazon Video and iTunes): February 14, 2017
- DVD/Blu-Ray Release: February 28, 2017
- Netflix Streaming (HBO equivalent) Release: Summer 2017 (predicted)
Doctor Strange will go from opening to pay channels in eight to nine months while Titanic took a year and a half. Studios shrink the windows so fans will continue to pay for the movie and avoid fans forgetting Doctor Strange in the onslaught of media content.
We live in a time of mass content. Media companies make content for every demographic such that what you watch – Duck Dynasty, Girls, Comic book movies, art films, or even nothing – is fighting to be the new identity politics. Our binge obsessed culture means Keeping Up With the Joneses now includes the Joneses’ Netflix queue.
The Cure for Mass Infantilization
Mass infantilization is a culture problem. Do we want to watch the next Much Ado About Nothing or the next Year One? One of the many lessons we forget with time is that a lot of crappy movies are made every year and always have been. Mass infantilization has always had a noon showing at the multiplex. Adam Sandler has six more films coming to Netflix only. Sandler will soon be this generation’s Abbot and Costello or The Three Stooges, only he will be the poor man’s hybrid of both.
The diagnosis of mass infantilization as a chronic condition implies it is curable. It’s not. As a seasonal affliction it is a virus. There is no cure other than time: grow older, grow wiser, watch an art film instead of a blockbuster at least once a year, and read your local movie reviewer in the morning. The cure to mass infantilization is to stop being an infant. Movie studios will make content for you.
All they want is the box office anyway.
(Note: An earlier version of “Mass Infantilization Plaguing Movies” was posted to the author’s Facebook page as “Spoon-fed Cinema (Continued)” on August 13, 2009. Updates have been made.)