Saturday, January 07, 2012

The Post-American Entertainment Industry

The decline of the entertainment industry is all around us. Movie ticket sales have dropped sharply even with inflated numbers from IMAX and 3D movies. Network viewership has declined even more dramatically leaving big three letter networks with numbers that look more like cable. Even the music industry is a ghost of its former self.

The entertainment industry has done its best to disguise this state of affairs with glamor and big numbers. More money is invested in bigger budget projects than ever before, and some of those projects yield incredible sales numbers, but the occasional megahit can't disguise the overall decay of the basic business model as more and more money has to be spent to draw in a declining base. It now costs more to promote a successful movie, show or performer than it takes to produce the creative content. The hundreds of millions of dollars that used to go into product development go into sales now. And the sales look good until you start taking a close look at the big picture and the bottom line.  No matter how big the hits are, overall ticket sales are down, television viewership is down and there is no relief in sight.

The industry has blamed the Internet, and while technology has historically played a role in eclipsing and destabilizing technology linked entertainment business models, which movies, television and the music business certainly are, it's an insufficient explanation. The Internet is a source of creative chaos, but the source of the entertainment industry's woes come from inside its own gates.

The entertainment industry was once one of the more American industries as it was steeped deeply in taking and putting out the national culture. Today it has little to do with America or Americans who are nothing but a backdrop for its spectacles, providing the scenery and extras for stories and songs that no longer speak to them.

The decline of the entertainment industry is linked to that failure to speak to Americans. When the entertainment industry speaks it is to the concerns and obsessions of a political and cultural elite, but for the most part it acts as a weapon of mass distraction. It no longer speaks, it bellows like an insane carnival, pumping out garish spectacles and outlandish personalities in the hopes of attracting patrons.

American entertainment now performs better around the world than it does at home. Or at worst it performs equally well because there is no longer anything American about it. It was possible to look at a film from the 1950s and see something of the American character and value system in even the most worthless drivel. It has become all but impossible to look at the front shelf products of modern film, television and music and see anything American in their values.

The question is not one of morality or vulgarity or artistic value. It is simply that there is nothing American about them. They speak to an undifferentiated global audience in a glottal cacophony of noisy spectacle with no meaning. American entertainment used to be difficult to compete with because it was innovative and well made. It is difficult to compete with today because so much money is spent on making it and promoting it. And because its formlessness is universal, it speaks to the common need of all people to be distracted, shocked and amazed by the explosive and the emotionally shallow. It is something that everyone can enjoy, but that no one but teenagers can relate to.

The decline of a conscious Americanism has implications for more than a nation's entertainments. A nation is an idea that reminds a people of who they are. When there is no idea, then there are endless civil wars fought over every possible difference. When the Sunnis and Shiites are told to put down arms and unite to preserve Iraq, what is Iraq to them that they should unite behind it? If a foreign enemy invades it then they might join up and fight, but they have nothing that unites them beyond an accident of geography and tribal humor.

Building up a meaningful identity takes time and effort. The American identity projected outward around the world was one of good humor, fair play and confidence in the future. It was the essence of decency combined with optimism that made the world seem like a better place. That identity can still be found in the country, but it is harder to find in the organs of its national identity among political and cultural elites preoccupied with preparing for the end of nations. There is no room for an American exceptionalism of any kind among the ruins of nations in a borderless world.Which amounts to declaring that there is no room for Americans.

The entertainment industry has left Americans behind and Americans have left the entertainment industry behind. America is still a grandiose stage for the world, but fewer of the natives are paying attention to the entertainment of a decadent post-American class.

The breakdown of the family overseen by the entertainment industry has led to a reciprocal decline in the bread and butter business of that industry.The family viewing hours that once led to tremendous ratings for television shows are gone and the numbers have gone with them. Family movie attendance is also on the decline. The entertainment industry has its laser sights set on an always vanishing young adult demographic that spends a great deal of money on entertainment per individual, but which is also fickle and requires spending a great deal more money on advertising. This leads to massive hits and massive failures where the few successes outweigh the larger failures of the business model.

The family is a vanishing figure in the entertainment industry and so are the revenues it used to bring in. It isn't gone yet, but the entertainment industry has forgotten how to interact with it. It is no longer sure what Americans are, let alone American families, and it compensates for its cultural detachment with insecurity, throwing more money at bigger projects, and if it can't come up with the money, then it goes directly for shock value.

There is no better barometer for the artistic failures of the industry than its loss of nuance. It is no longer able to speak to people, only shout at them without making any sense. It retains nuance only when addressing its own concerns and this it considers to be art. Disconnected from the larger public, it rolls out carnivals and turns everything into a confection of sugar, blinding lights and more venial amusements. The audience lingers for a time and then leaves with nothing exchanged but time and money.

The industry is still capable of distracting Americans and that is the only reason the money still keeps rolling in. But the ways in which it distracts them are not unique. Even its distractions are increasingly imported and its vulgarity reeks of the desperation of a once witty professor reduced to scatology in order to keep the students interested. And the hollowness of the spectacle can't prevent the drain from continuing.

The problem with distracting people is that anyone can do it. The only barriers are money and marketing. The internet has made broadcasting universal. And for now the only things the entertainment industry has on its side are the relics of its old operation, the contracts and agreements, the rights and privileges, the stations, networks and theaters. The physical and legal relics of a way of doing business that is on the verge of disappearing. SOPA and its cousins are the dying gasps of dinosaurs looking to outlaw gravity, instead of learning to look where they are going.

That just leaves money and more often than not it isn't even American money. American entertainment is an investment, funded by foreign investors and increasingly made for foreign audiences. The massive conglomerates which encompass music, films, television, comic books and much more have become the middle men between foreign businessmen and foreign audiences. Eventually the businessmen will realize that they can make money by building up an industry at home and cut Hollywood and its sisters out of the picture completely.

For now the pyramids of money keep the Pharaohs of the American entertainment industry on top of what  appears to be a booming business. But the business is mostly one of name recognition. No one really knows what they are doing anymore, and like so much of American business, the template for success is to leave on a high note before the consequences of your incompetence catch up with you. Fortunes are being spent to sell audiences on a product that they don't want all that much anymore, and every negative set of numbers sends a fresh panic through the industry which retaliates by spending more on increasingly derivative and unoriginal projects in the hope that when the whole thing collapses no one will blame them for it.

Entertainment is one of the few products still being made in America, but it is a product that is less American than ever. It is not an American vision made for American audiences, but a way for the world to pass the time while waiting for the next economic collapse, the next war and the next blast from the collapse of civilization.


John K said...
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John K said...

So many of the disreputable things that are being rejected in America are being peddled in overseas markets where they hope ignorance of the downsides and love for all things American will keep sales up. Two examples that come to mind are cigarettes and Amway. Fast food megabrands are another, but I'm not really on the bandwagon to label them as junk food.

PeteAbandoned said...

Fine writing follows fine thinking.

If Hollywood ever looks back on its past, as you have done here, they may rue their mistakes, but it may be too late.

America was once a nation of individuals with the stories that eminate from individual struggle.

Now, we are portrayed as a pack, like the tribes throughout the world that prey on each other.

Thanks again for greating writing.

Edward Cline said...

Daniel: Thanks for this article. It more or less confirms my own estimate of the movie (or “entertainment”) industry. It simply no longer speaks to America or about America. It’s usually against America or against one or all of its values or characteristics. One could pass the same sentence on the book trade, with which I’m more familiar. But if I want to watch a movie anymore, it’s usually an older one, pre-1965 more likely. 1965 is my benchmark year. That’s when Hollywood began to turn against the country with films I could list by the score up to the present so I won’t bore you or your readers with them. You noted: “It was possible to look at a film from the 1950s and see something of the American character and value system in even the most worthless drivel.” When I read that sentence, I immediately thought of “The Blob,” starring a very young Steve McQueen as a teenager. There is still something uniquely American in that film, bad as it is.

But what have we today? Spectacular explosions. Hip language coming from made-over heroes of yore. The destruction of New York or Los Angeles lovingly created by technicians who seem to revel in the destruction, appended to tissue-thin stories about alien invasions or global warming or science gone wrong (“The Day After Tomorrow,” “Skyline,” “independence Day,” “I am Legend”) with a cast of cardboard or stereotyped characters and “name” casts with minimal acting skills without even a nod to cause-and-effect or reality. Then, of course, there are the blatantly anti-American films such as “Avatar,” in which the villains are distinctively American and who certainly couldn’t be taken for British or French. There is also an interesting article on FrontPage on the travails of Hollywood and its Elitist-Left hand-wringing, which I am guessing you’ve already read. As a novelist, I look for plot strength and rational conflict in stories, and I just don’t see much of it in today’s films. Television? I no longer watch it. It’s mostly mind-mulch targeted to the passive and indiscriminate.
I think the last film I saw that displayed any courage or innovation or elements of plot in it was Alejandro Amenábar’s “Agora” (2009), about the Christian jihad against pagans and Jews in ancient Alexandria. No American studio would ever touch the subject. This film came and went without anyone noticing (certainly the critics didn’t pay it much attention), which was also the fate of interesting films such as
Thomas Carter’s “Swing Kids” (1993), about the conflicts of teenagers in mid-1930’s Nazi Germany.

You might also read my 2007 column, “Hollywood’s Jihad Against America,” here:

Mr ED said...

A very good analysis as usual, but I would focus on the core of the problem which I believe you state quite well in one line:

"The decline of the entertainment industry is linked to that failure to speak to Americans."

I believe you are right on target, but there is a process and industry at work here that must be examined in a larger context. Modern Liberalism informs the "elect" (writers in this case) that they are brilliant, enlightened heroes (think Algore the Magnificent, ex VP) whose mission should be not to reflect the America that is around them in any way but rather to hector, lecture and pontificate to Americans how the world should work. Modern Liberals cling fanatically to their personal belief in 1) themselves and 2) their perfect vision of the perfect world, perfect being whatever makes them feel best about themselves at any moment. Their simple-minded theoretical constructs about the supposed perfect world that only they can envision is in reality equal parts personal ego, narcissism and blind faith in themselves as godlike.

Naturally the enlightened godlike among us have no need to write stories about the realities of life, rather they are obligated to hector, lecture and berate the Great Unwashed masses about the godlike Libs own self-deluded fantasies based on abstract theoretical constructs grounded in their own personal fantasies about how they WISH the world would work. Who really wants to be hectored, lectured and inculcated with fantasist lies and PAY the propagandist doing it? Not me, thanks. Broadcast media today in the western world is little more than variagated levels of Modern Liberal propaganda, and it will be the focus of the next clash in the cultural war we find ourselves in. To illustrate the point, just consider the ease with which a hard-core partisan Lib who worked in the White House (Stephanopolis) slid into the media, and now slithers back again. Can you even imagine if a non-Lib tried to do that? It is SOP for the Libs and there are many examples.

t1klish said...

Not to mention many of us don't have a spare cent to spend on going to a movie or buying a CD. Oh, wait, record stores no longer exist.

As to the quality of current entertainment, I can't get through a few hours of television without being told that all women should be participating in homosexual acts with their friends.

Zachriel said...

Daniel Greenfield: The decline of the entertainment industry is all around us.

Hmm. Box Office numbers aren't that far off of normal, about $10.1 billion, down from $10.6 billion the previous two years. Considering the economy, and the rise of alternative entertainment sources, that's not so bad.

Daniel Greenfield: The family is a vanishing figure in the entertainment industry and so are the revenues it used to bring in.

Top movie this year was Harry Potter, and a lot of families attended. Last year was Toy Story.

Daniel Greenfield: The entertainment industry has its laser sights set on an always vanishing young adult demographic that spends a great deal of money on entertainment per individual, but which is also fickle and requires spending a great deal more money on advertising.

The young have always been the bread-and-butter of the movie industry. Think 'Attack of the Killer Tomatoes' or 'I Was a Teenage Werewolf.'

cheryl said...

If someone wants to argue American exceptionalism, one need only read "anything" you have written or, the majority of comments posted by those who love your blog.
I watch very little television and go to the movies only occasionally because the movie,television and music industry have been hijacked by thugs with an insatiable appetite for wealth, power and perversion. Actors, directors, musicians supporting left wing, radical causes have changed the America I love and turned it into something grotesque and unrecognizable. Why should I give them a cent of my money or a second of my time? So, I don't.
We've come a long way from "It's A Wonderful Life" and it shows in the behaviors of too many Americans.
Thank you so much for this wonderful piece.

Edward Cline said...

Zachriel: I think you’re missing Daniel’s point. Sure, Hollywood has “always” targeted teens and kids with money to spend, such as the Harry Potter films and “The Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” and so on. What I think he’s driving at is the near total absence of movies such as “The Manchurian Candidate” (the Sinatra version), “Seven Days in May,” “Executive Suite,” and big-budget epics such as “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Khartoum.” These and others I could name are aimed at adults with adult perspectives and sensibilities, and are not kiddy- or teen-fare. No whiz-bang graphics or techie show-off special effects present in them. Just directorial, script and acting talent. All adults get now is politically correct lecturing on how bad or presumptuous or hilarious Americans and America are, how we’ll get our butts whipped by the disenfranchised, and so on. Even when Hollywood tries to do something “pro-American,” they can’t get it right, such as Gibson’s skewed “The Patriot” and Hanks’ “John Adams” and “Saving Private Ryan.” The last few times I spent half a paycheck for a movie ticket, the theater was perhaps one-quarter full, and the same goes for theater parking lots, which I pass on the way to work every day. So, those figures you’re citing are inflated or jiggered with. Families? I’m not a family man, so I wouldn’t know anything about that aspect of theater-going. But what I think Daniel was trying to say is that the country is in a cultural value crisis, which Hollywood is not addressing and which it is in large part responsible for. You can tell Americans they’re crap only so many times before they get the point and go elsewhere.

Paul said...

"The industry has blamed the Internet, and while technology has historically played a role in eclipsing and destabilizing technology linked entertainment business models, which movies, television and the music business certainly are, it's an insufficient explanation. The Internet is a source of creative chaos, but the source of the entertainment industry's woes come from inside its own gates."

And so you completely dropped the ball.

You neglect that technology itself is what the movie industry is all about and technological advances change the movie industry. If those in the movie industry cannot adapt to technical change than the wrong people are running the movie industry. It's really that simple and this is what the problem is.

I have not watched any broadcast or cable television or listened to any broadcast or cable radio for the last four years. But I have a television set and I watch it every evening? What am I watching? DVDs. I rent DVDs from a machine at the local grocery, or I check them out from the local library. The DVDs I rent are movies that at one time were shown at the local movie hall. I don't have blueray yet, but that will be coming too, the price of a blueray player has plunged to about $100 and it is only a question of time before they get even cheaper than that.

I don't go to the movies at movie halls. Why? Because public life has gotten worse and worse. I don't want to share the same dark space as a bunch of babbling idiots when I'm trying to watch a movie. And if I really want to see the movie, all I have to do is wait for it come out on DVD. With each new movie release, I just sit back and listen to all the hype and think, "Well maybe I'll see it on DVD and maybe I won't". That's it. And I'm not going to wait anxiously for the DVD release either. Once it comes out, it's out and I'll wait until I bump into it somewhere by chance. If I don't see it the first year of release, who cares? I'll watch it another year from now, five years ... ten years? It will always be there waiting for me to see it if I want to.

Television has gotten the same way. If a sitcom looks good on broadcast TV, skip it. Wait for it to come out on DVD. It wasn't until this year I even knew what a "30 Rock" was. It was a complete mystery. What could it be? The first four seasons were at the local library for years and I still skipped it until this year. Over the holidays I sat down over the course of a couple weeks and breezed through all four seasons. It's still running on TV. Who cares? I can wait for the DVD. Or not.

The music industry is another subject and I'll wait for you to bring it up.

Zachriel said...
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Zachriel said...

cheryl: We've come a long way from "It's A Wonderful Life" and it shows in the behaviors of too many Americans.

That's funny. When "It's a Wonderful Life" came out it, it was denounced by some as communist propaganda, and even rated an FBI report devoted to uncovering its subversive message.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

It's a given that the industry needs to adapt technologically, but in large part they have. Within 5 years they'll have adapted completely, though it took them far too long. My point is that content is also a major issue.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

John, yes when Americans get wise the same garbage is peddled elsewhere.

Edward, yes that sort of thinking has become alien to the industry now.

Mr Ed, and that is how we ended up with socialist realism as the dominant model.

t1klish, the economic downturn doesn't help certainly

Zachriel, it's an overall decline being masked by higher ticket prices.

Cheryl, you're right. Change will only come when the industry realizes that Americans are no longer interested in subsidizing it.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Edward, yes quite a few theaters are empty too much of the time. And that's after theaters spent massive fortunes on all the new technology that Hollywood promised them would fix everything.

Keli Ata said...

I don't go to the movies very often anymore, perhaps twice a year. Sure, the movies kill off a couple of hours but that's about it.

The last drama that inspired me was ALIVE in 1993. The last great comedy IMO was THE END with Bert Reynolds. That was in 1976.

They speak to an undifferentiated global audience in a glottal cacophony of noisy spectacle with no meaning."

It's interesting that you chose the word undifferentiated. It's the perfect word, considering how dangerous undifferentiated cancer cells are.

Sad to say that American entertainment as especially news coverage leaves me so...disengaged. Is it any wonder I am much more engaged watching RT and starting to think about issues? At least the shows have engaged me. The US counterparts make me flip the channel or tune out entirely.

I will always be a proud American bt at the moment uninspired. At least alternative and foreign media has been able to engage me (sorry for using that word so much) and bring enthusiasm when it comes to American politics and culture.

Great article! And again, brilliant to use the undifferentiated.

Paul said...

Daniel, you are still stuck on the notion that movies are a highly restricted art medium. When only a few people can make movies for a huge market, then it is a highly profitable market. Criticism of content in this context is about a small set of producers who must maximaze interest. But anyone can make a movie now and the availability of necessary technology at affordable prices increases daily. Content is now whatever you want it to be. I can purchase a Blue Ray player that will connect me to YouTube. I am more likely to care about what is on YouTube then I am from the local broadcaster (cable is broadcasting).

The future of the movie industry is a complete unknown. There is nothing they can do about it, least of all the movie industry itself. There is no adapting to an explosion and really, the movie industry ought to know better. It was itself born in the same explosion. The problem is that the people who own the industry are too powerful and disinterested in movies as art as much as they are in movies as hypnosis. The power of suggestion is more important to the creative impulse than the power to tell a good story.

Jack said...
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Jack said...
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Jack said...

There is still good stuff coming out of Hollywood.
TV is trying to keep up, it will make it. Bad management is a problem right now.
Maybe the entertainment industry is not your forte as far as blogging.
Your attempts at politics are a bit better.

careyrowland said...

All this sad but true.
Accompanying this dying dinosaur is a host of utube/net pluralities that have yet to reach the age of accountability. If this online multiplicity of expressions ever achieves any cultural maturity, we may have a real communications revolution on our hands. Those old behemoths of distraction will lapse into the the tar sands of entertainment history.
I see the real struggle as a cognitive battle between video and text. 30 years from now, will regular folks even be still reading? Or will they gather all their input from video?
I hope literacy survives these changes, which is why I write novels, novels that make, incidentally, excellent family movies, but with a 21st-century challenge.
Thanks, Daniel, for this aside from politics, peppered as usual with your customary incisive analysis.
Btw, I agree with you that GB should have credited you for your work. However, in the age of online info, they may be something we should get used to.

LeeM said...

I think these ideas should get the widest possible forum.
I wonder if you may consider speech writing for our ‘NEW Next’ President. 

Its these ideas that may promote a National “realization”; something we can all coalesce into our lost National Identity, Culture….History.

“Mr. Smith” may get back to Washington yet…., but there has to be a little of that Jimmy Stewart in all of us to put a smile back on the American Spirit.
Maybe a little John Wayne too.

Thanks again……

John K said...

Cheryl said: "I watch very little television and go to the movies only occasionally"

Me either. It's rare that something is on that reflects the gift of intelligence. I suppose I should unwind more often, but with this battle before us, I don't feel the desire to do other things any more. This is the issue that defines our times like WWII defined the previous generation.

@ Paul - Bob Lefsetz writes a lot about technology changing the music world and compares it to the motion picture and television industry by saying that the latter is going through the same changes as the former, but is just a little behind. He says they are making the same mistakes to resist change and hold on to their fiefdoms. While there are still some court filings by aggressive companies like EMI, they are losing and the old model is on its way out. Those who resist change and do not adapt to it will be the ones left out in the cold.

lgstarr said...

I was in the music industry first as a professional keyboard player starting in 1965 (even played for POTUS), then at MCA Records for 13 1/2 years (1982-1997) when it was still in existence and still on the lot at Universal, and also as a composer (several musicals produced in Los Angeles in the 1980's).

I saw this industry implode over the years, and I personally experienced the executives' blindness to the coming technological changes which even me and my BMI-songwriter/musician husband could see!

My good friend Robert "Bumps" Blackwell (Little Richard's manager) said it was the lawyers who killed the music business (numbers became more important than anything else, plus the lawyers did not have the "ears." (Someone once told me that Paul Rothchild definitely had the "ears" and could hear a piano-vocal--or guitar-vocal--song demo without a huge master-quality, and expensive, production.)

In the early days of RAP, all the women at MCA Records rebelled and said they would not work on one of our acts' albums (F U TOO I think it was called). The lyrics were about torture, cutting off women's nipples, etc. from what I can remember...

A lot of the execs were crazed druggies and sons of rich Hollywood moguls who broke furniture, threw telephones, and ordered Pizza at the beautiful 3-types-of-cavier Christmas parties.

Yes, something happened to the Music Industry and Entertainment Industry: I was there, I knew it was happening, and I couldn't have said it better than the Sultan!

Anonymous said...

I got fed up with the local cinemas here in Ottawa because of the presumption that if they turn up the volume on commercials ever higher more people will purchase the product. Would you buy from a salesman who shouts in your ear? Having to sit through a commercial is bad enough.

Paul said...

The high point of the music industry for me as a consumer was the introduction of cheap high fidelity. This was due to the invention of the semiconducter and the introduction of solid state amplifiers. This, together with analog recording made listening to high fidelity pure bliss for everyone. One of the things that has to come back for the future of the music industry is the resurrection of high fidelity. Digital media has the potential to become superior in fidelity to analog recording. But only if we dump file compression. File compression really sucks the life out of sound recording. There is no longer any need for file compression in audio. Tetrabyte storage is now routine and band width has long left the 56K behind.

Daniel Greenfield @ the Sultan Knish blog said...

Lgstar, thank you for sharing with us your insight and personal experience.

John K said...

Lgstar, Bob Lefsetz echoes your point a lot about litigation killing the business by trying to prop up the old financial paradigm by force. He talks a lot about businesses needing to court their customers rather than antagonizing them.

lgstarr said...

@Daniel - thanks (wish I'd edited it more carefully though--that darned Chardonnay :-)

@John K - I used to read The Lefsetz Letter awhile back but then lost I just hang out at the Warrior Forum!

Anonymous said...

Entertainment has been killed by political correctness. In movies or commercials, all men are stupid and bad fathers, families are a disgusting mess. I wonder how the wonderful woman in their life married them (and I'm a woman), so why would I want to "entertain" myself with that?

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