Pass the Popcorn: How Bad Will Hollywood Get?

December 19, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Check out this excellent essay on the way franchises have transformed Hollywood. It is not, I promise, just another long lament that there are too many comic book movies, too many sequels, etc. The author, Mark Harris, is thinking seriously about Hollywood’s business model, and there are lots of data and interesting quotes I haven’t seen elsewhere. Seeing the list of franchise movies already announced from the major studios really was an eye-opener. And he makes an insightful point about how Hollywood is now so skilled at creating anticipation that it’s forgetting to provide the payoff. What used to be payoff is now only a calculated part of a larger plan to keep building anticipation for the next product.

Now! That having been said, I think Harris is too pessimistic, for two reasons.

1) While Harris acknowledges that not all franchise movies are bad, and some are very good, he nonetheless seems to assume as a basis of his case that artsy movies – that is, movies intended to be serious rather than mere ephemeral entertainment – are, on the whole, more likely to be very good than franchise movies. This has not been my experience. Even if we discount the value of entertainment and judge strictly on “artistic merit,” I think franchise movies are about as likely to be very good as artsy movies. Not because franchise movies are necessarily good, but because artsy movies generally fail to have much more artistic merit than franchise movies. My wife and I were avid moviegoers during the very height of the independent movie era, and we saw a lot of them. Most of them had “entertainment value” rather than “artistic value.” They were witty or exciting or whatever, and we enjoyed them while we were watching them. But most of them were not great art.

Harris estimates that about 150 franchise movies will open in the next six years. At the end of the article he concedes that some of them – “more than two and fewer than twenty” – will be “very good.” Let’s say “more than two and fewer than twenty” is ten movies. That’s less than two very good movies per year, so it’s a conservative estimate. If so, by his own showing one out of every fifteen franchise movies is “very good.” I’d put up that track record against the arthouse any day.

2) Harris assumes consumer tastes will not revolt against the rise of the franchise. Franchises rule because they are financially rewarded. Must this remain so, even after franchises have squeezed everything else off the studio slate? I see no reason to think so, and every indication that consumers are already clamoring for something else. The idiots who run Hollywood just haven’t figured out how to give them anything else. But someone will, and when they do, the bubble will pop. (Barriers to entry in the entertainment sector are rapidly approaching zero.)

On both points, Harris’ argument fatally rests on the assumption that movies made for the purpose of having artistic merit rather than for the purpose of pleasing general audiences are more likely to have artistic merit. Yet there is little empirical evidence this is the case.


Pass the Popcorn: Bearing New Images

September 2, 2014

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Fans of Hayao Miyazaki (a previous PTP subject) might like to know about this fascinating essay on his critical view of Japanese culture and what he thinks it needs from its filmmakers. Over on Hang Together, I connect his thoughts to western debates about capitalism and the role of entrepreneurs in cultural regeneration:

Verily, freedom and economic development create opportunities for people to distort their desire. But to contract freedom and development would only deliver us into the hands of an elite formed by that cultural decay, locking in the distortion of desire, freezing in place the present decadence. The solution instead lies with those who not only make responsible use of their opportunities, but inspire others to follow them in doing so (“to spur audiences to seek and love the world”).


“Doesn’t God Believe in My Pursuit of Happiness?”

May 21, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

My nomination of Kickstarter for The Al didn’t get off the ground, but after watching this trailer, I already feel like I got full value for the $40 I chipped in to help Zack Braff make this movie without letting the idiots who seem to be in charge of Hollywood mess around with it. Enjoy!


McConaughey Hasn’t Been this Happy Since VY took it in on 4th and 5

March 3, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Ellen’s best joke from the Oscar’s last night was that the nominees had 1,400 films between them and six years of college.  Two thirds of those years are held by last night’s Best Actor winner Matthew McConaughey, a graduate and unofficial roaming ambassador for the University of Texas at Austin.

So Jay and Greg, how long has it been since your eastern seaboard finishing schools for global technocrats graduates won a Best Actor Oscar?  That’s what I thought- SCOREBOARD! Don’t bother bringing up those Nobel Prizes because we all know those things are totally overrated.

McConaughey snapped this pick on his iPhone and whispered to himself “Eat your heart out Krugman!”

Matthew McConaughey has slowly but surely become a more accomplished Dean Martin of the early 21st Century. Whether he’s getting into minor incidents with the Austin police for playing a bongo or winning an Oscar, dude is having fun whether you are or not.  Keep it up MM and

BOOOOOOOOM!!!!


Pass the Popcorn: Do You Want to Be Awesome, or Loved?

February 18, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

It’s a Pass the Popcorn so big, I couldn’t fit it onto JPGB. Head over to Hang Together for 3,300 words on The Lego Movie and Frozen, which offer the two great moral worldviews of our time.

If you haven’t seen The Lego Movie, go see it. It’s hilarious. The entertainment value is well worth your money. I expect that some of the pop culture gags in this movie will be referenced by nerds around their digital water coolers for some time to come. And the gags are almost all visual, so it’s going to be a lot funnier on the big screen than it will be in your living room.

Don’t go expecting deep wisdom, just go expecting a great time, and you’ll have one.

Now, to business. Do NOT read the rest of this article until after you’ve seen both The Lego Movie and Frozen (subject of my most recent Pass the Popcorn article over at JPGB). Major spoilers lie ahead…

The Lego Movie and Frozen are both examining what may well be the most important question facing our culture. They are not about the culture war as such, but they are about the core question of the meaning and purpose of human life that lies behind the culture war…

Your thoughts and feedback welcomed!


Pass the Popcorn: Frozen

February 13, 2014

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

While there’s still time, go see Frozen while it’s still in theaters. The Pixar conquest of Disney has been an uneven battle up to now, but this move is an unqualified victory and it may turn the tide of the war. It’s a profound movie on many levels.

The most obvious lesson of Frozen – the one that’s made explicit in the movie – is that love is not about how you feel. It’s about putting other people’s needs ahead of your own. This by itself would make Frozen a profound inversion of the old Disney culture by the Pixar invaders. But Frozen not only makes this point, it traces some wide-ranging consequences. Such as: people invest too much importance in romantic love relative to other kinds of love. The responsible grown-ups who tell you not to burn down everything else in your life for the sake of “true love” (quote unquote) are not your enemies, they’re your friends. They’re the people who really love you.

When Enchanted subverted these same fairy-tale conventions – e.g. getting engaged to someone you just met – it was just going for laughs. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of laughs in Frozen. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. But there are no laughs on this particular subject. Frozen is not subverting the Disney view of marriage for fun. Frozen is playing to win.

That alone would be enough to make Frozen an early contender for the most culturally regenerative movie of the year. But there’s more going on.

Under the surface, Frozen is dealing with two other subjects that are, if anything, even tougher for our culture. One is the corruption of human nature. It used to be that pretty much everyone agreed there was a systematic moral dysfunction in human nature. This is a teaching held by Christians in an especially strong form, of course, but it is by no means a peculiar Christian doctrine. Aristotle believed it, as did Kant. There is a whole song in Frozen about how nobody is what he ought to be: “Everybody’s a Bit of a Fixer-Upper.” While there are villains in Frozen who are willing to kill, the main threat to the heroine’s life comes from the selfish actions of a sympathetic character – someone who loves her. We are explicitly told at one point that the explanation is simple: everyone is like that.

This is, of course, related to the main message. It’s because other people are so disappointing that we prioritize our own feelings rather than other people’s needs. And it is because we are ourselves so disappointing that our lives fall apart when we prioritize our own feelings.

The other theme in Frozen, one buried even deeper, is the tension between social rules and individual freedom. Without giving too much away, I can say that Frozen is the movie Brave was trying to be, but couldn’t be. Brave was trying to deal with the fact that society needs rules, and individuals who are not well served by the rules need to learn to subordinate their own desires to the good of their neighbors as embodied in the rules; at the same time, social authorities need to recognize that the rules must accommodate the needs of individuals – including the needs of those unusual individuals who are not well served by the same rules that serve everyone else.

There was internal conflict over Brave at Disney, and it shows. Frozen pulls off the same angle brilliantly – better, perhaps, than Brave could have. Because in Frozen we are shown what happens to individuals who try to flee from society in order to escape its rules. They fall apart. Their lives become arbitrary and meaningless – and they learn to hate. “The cold never bothered me anyway” sings Queen Elsa as she builds an ice castle for herself at the top of a remote mountain, but she doesn’t realize how the cold is seeping into her heart.

We all need freedom, but we also need each other.


Pass the Popcorn: Much Ado About Nothing

July 29, 2013

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So in April I wondered whether 2013 would offer up anything to challenge a random collection of old movie favorites I had recently seen on the big screen. It wasn’t looking good, but the Prescott Film Festival just scored, even if it was kind of cheating with a 2012 film.

The Prescott Film festival had what they advertised as the only Arizona screening of Josh Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing this weekend (Phoenix is not just a physical desert) so I eagerly bought a ticket.  Actress Emma Bates, who played Ursula, was on hand for Q and A after the film.  Here’s the trailer:

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So the back story on the film is that Whedon has had actors over to his house on Sundays for years to read Shakespeare. He had a short break between shooting and post-production for The Avengers and instead of going on a trip to celebrate his 20th wedding anniversary, Whedon’s wife talked him in to shooting Much Ado About Nothing.  Whedon summoned his friends, including veterans from Buffy, Angel, Firefly and the Avengers, assigned parts, and shot the entire film at his own house in 12 days.  Bates related that Whedon’s wife is an architect and that she had in fact designed their house with shooting Much Ado About Nothing in mind. When you see the flick, you won’t doubt it.

I generally have a bias against American film actors trying to pull off Shakespeare. I watched the old Julius Caesar recently, and while Heston made a pretty good Marc Anthony, enduring Jason Robards playing Brutus with a midwestern deadpan accent was, well, brutal. I don’t think there was a single Brit in the bunch for this Much Ado but it didn’t matter because these guys were rolling with it and having fun. Sean Maher in particular was very good:

But maybe it was because the last American actor I saw play his role was:

Whether you love Whedon or Shakespeare, this movie is well worth the watch.


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