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Sunday, December 04, 2005

Why do we care?

I planned on writing a blog post on the following topic, but Nathan Rabin over at the AV Club wrote up a really good post before I could write it. Here is his post and here is my comment:

Why do we care?
posted by:
Nathan Rabin
December 1, 2005 - 4:57pm

Howdy you alls,

I know it's been longer than a camel's dong since I last rapped at ya (to borrow the immortal opening gambit of one of my favorite columnists) but I been all busy and shit, rocking, rolling and also whatnot.

So anyway, I read William Goldman's "The Big Picture" a little while back. It's a pretty mind-bogglingly useless book cobbled together haphazardly out of similarly lazy and pointless columns Goldman wrote about two intertwined subjects in the 90s: handicapping the Oscars and making wildly inaccurate predictions about various film's box office potential. Part of what makes the book so useless yet strangely addictive is its incredibly short shelf life. Who exactly is hungering in 2005 to re-live half-assed predictions about the box-office potential of, say, "Three Men and a Little Lady" (for the record all of Goldman's anonymous Hollywood heavyweights concur that it can't possibly be anything other than a monster hit)? Historical irony plays a part as well, as when Goldman breathlessly enthuses that Kevin Costner will be able to command thirty or forty million a movie after the runaway success of "Wyatt Earp".

So here's my question: why are we, as a society, so fascinated by box office? It seems to be a fairly recent development. Why do people without any financial or personal stake in a film's economic performance seem to care so passionately about what Tom Cruise or Adam Sandler or Julia Roberts' movies will do at the box-office opening week? And why do we care so passionately about the Oscars?

My guess (and here comes the part where I attempt to answer my own question) is that it has something to do with our culture's mania for competition, for reducing everything, whether it's politics or movies or literature, into a horse race with clear winners and losers that can be quantified in a fairly concrete fashion (Gladiator won Best Picture so it clearly must be the bestest, etc). Caring about the Oscars or diligently following a film's economic fortunes gives us a rooting interest in movies, makes us feel involved in a way that merely enjoying a film or seeing it over and over again apparently doesn't.

Another thing that really struck me about the book was how often movies that make a lot of money or dominate the box office are forgotten while movies that endure and gain additional emotional resonance are ones that flop initially but pick up a devoted and passionate following through the years, movies like "Donnie Darko" or "Office Space" rather than the "Beautiful Minds" or "Good Will Huntings" or "You've Got Mails" of the world. The movies that endure are ones that audiences have to find on their own rather than having them shoved down their throats by studios or the press.

So, what do you guys think?

For a lot of people, box office performance and awards are thought of as measurements of apparent validity. The deal is, do we (as in, the audience members and not the employees of the movie studio) really remember how much a movie makes or how many Oscars a film earns in the longrun? My answer is no. We remember the films that matter to us personally because of the stories, the characters, the writing, et al. and whatever it earns is a footnote. The true success of a film (and this applies to music and books too) is that it gets made. As long as a film is available in a viewable format, it's a success.

Talking about weekend box office numbers is good "watercooler" talk the following Monday. It's a news item on TV and radio too. It's a topic, but the importance of a film isn't based off its opening weekend or recognition by the Academy. There is heavy pressure on a film to perform well on the opening weekend, but the DVD market is becoming more important than the theatrical/first-run market these days.

Are any of the strengths or weaknesses of a film based on its ability to attract a large audience and make a profit? Well, they can be pointed at if the film does or doesn't perform up to expectations, but it's all in how people feel about the film over the years. Classic examples are Citizen Kane and It's a Wonderful Life. Citizen Kane was highly-touted but a box office disappointment and It's a Wonderful Life was a box office bomb. Are those factors any gauges as to how people think of these films now? Absolutely not.

One of my favorite movies in last few years is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Sure, it was interesting to see it be at the top of the box office for a few weeks and it was cool to see scruffy-lookin' Peter Jackson go up for Oscars all those times, but those were only a few weeks and one night a few years ago. What sticks with me today are the things that I enjoy about the film (the plot, the characters and the acting) and those are documented on film.

For a lot of people, movies are pure entertainment. The mainstream channels that promote films also boast the prestige of awards, box office performance and raving critical reviews. Those are interesting diversions from the film's emotional core when it’s out in the theaters, but are they really gonna matter when you sit and watch a film in the comfort and privacy of your own home years later?

Comment by: Eric Grubbs at December 3, 2005 - 9:48pm

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