Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Burger Kingification of Popular Cinema

The number one question I got when I walked around in my bright red AFI Dallas Film Festival Volunteer T-shirt was this, “What should I see?”

The festival had nice booklets for people to review.

The local press wrote about the festival weeks ahead of time. They made recommendations, listed out films they wanted to see, and even provided a group of trailers ominously missing from the AFI Dallas website.

But people still wanted to know what was good.

That is the joy and the terror of the Film Festival – you have no idea what the movie is going to be like. No one has seen it. You get to be the first. With this comes a certain amount of risk – it might be a real stinker or, even worse, a drug-rape-kill “comedy.” But there is also the very real chance that you will see something special and wonderful, a secret film that makes your heart warm every tine you think of it. (Case in point - My wife and I had an amazing time at a festival seeing the Adrienne Shelly film “I’ll Take You There.” It is still one of our favorite movies, even though it never got distribution. We love it even though no one else has even heard of it.)

But this got me thinking – you have the summary of the film before you. You have the trailer. You can use the International Movie Database to find out the filmography of all the actors, the screenwriter(s), the producer(s), the director, and even the cinematographer. But somehow this is not enough. You need to look someone in the eyes and have that person put his or her reputation on the line by recommending a movie.

Why don’t they trust all this information? Because too many times, they’ve been burned by the film summary, the trailer, or the resume of the talent involved. The movies are marketed to everyone, but the truth of the matter is that they’re made for niche audiences. And if you are in the mainstream but not in the niche, you will probably walk away from the experience disappointed.

This is a symptom of what I call the Burger Kingification of the movie industry.

For those of you who don’t follow fast food marketing, Burger King has adopted the business plan of ignoring the mainstream. Rather than put effort into following popular diet trends (such as serving salads, focusing on healthy foods, or serving anything Atkins of South Beach compliant), they just want to focus on the super-user. By catering to fast food aficionados, the company would (in theory) make more money than making something for everyone. Because only the fratboy demographic (a male age 17 to 24) would think of a sandwich named Meat’normous and think of it as a digestic challenge instead of something that should be fed to your enemies in hopes that it clogs their arteries.

Anyway, as more people who grew up on movies start making movies, a bit of genetic drift occurs. You watch films from Martin Scorsese and Brian de Palma and learn that they grew up watching movies by King Vidor and Alfred Hitchcock. And you watch movies by P.T. Anderson and Quentin Tarantino to learn only that they grew up watching Scorsese and de Palma movies. So you have someone riffing on someone riffing on someone riffing on Hitchcock. Or John Ford. Or Fritz Lang.

Sometimes it works, but more often than not, it comes across as a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy – just a mess. But a mess that is cherished and adored by the cool person who has the wherewithal to get the in-joke or who has been raised by Showtime, HBO, and Cinemax.

It even has gotten to the point where film directors pat themselves on the back for driving mainstream, Middle America out of the theaters. As if upsetting everyone except the niche audience was a mark of artistic integrity. The sad truth of the matter is that embedding yourself deeply in a niche is not a sign of artistic integrity as much as it is immersing yourself in an echo chamber. Cynicism and naiveté are not mutually exclusive.

One of the conversations I had with another AFI volunteer was about the movie Cake. He said he didn’t understand why the movie sold out when it looked stupid. I mean, what were these people thinking, spending their time and money watching a romantic comedy about a wedding? Why would someone even want to make a movie like that?

I asked him how much money "My Big, Fat Greek Wedding" made. THAT’S why someone would want to make a movie like that. It seems like an anomaly because so rarely is a movie made for the mainstream. Movies today are made for core and niche audiences. The Burger King Super-Users.

To try to make this point, I asked him if he wanted to see Grindhouse.

Hell, yes.

What about your mother and your grandmother? Are they just as excited about Grindhouse?

No way, man.

But would they go see Cake?

I guess so.

Well, ok then.


Chatty Ali said...

Hi Robert! I'm friends with Courtney Denney. She sent me this post. A fascinating point! But I would argue that what you're talking about is just an exagerration of genre. I mean, film has always had genres that were aimed at certain audiences... horror films during the 50s were aimed at teenagers going to drive-ins; romantic comedies and dramas have been aimed at women since before Douglas Sirk. I think you are definitely right that genre films are more prevalent today than they were during the golden age of hollywood, when big dramas and comedies and epics were seen by everybody, and often their kids. But didn't everyone go see Lord of the Rings, even the parents? Even BK-chomping frat boys went for the battle scenes. Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your post and you have a great take on films and the film festival. :) Take care!

M. Robert Turnage said...

Thanks for the comments. I always write this blog thinking only my wife will read it, so it is always pleasant to see other people reading. I guess what I am saying is that the movie-going audience and movie-creating writers/directors are genetically drifting away from the mainstream, to the point where films are not made for anyone mainstream. Even 'Lord of the Rings,' which was a mainstream hit, was created with a niche audience in mind. The fact that it was so popular was a happy accident more than anything. If you read circa-2000 film business reports, they thought the movies would break even and make all their money on video. The fact that they were so successful caught many of the business analysts off guard.

M. Robert Turnage said...

Here's one of those things where I think about it awhile and post some more. When you watch older films, you see a tradition being formed. If they made references to other art, it was painting or on-stage theater. The films of Powell and Pressburger have very clear references Van Gogh, Dali, and Rembrandt. Hitchcock regularly went to the theater to watch plays, and you can see the influence of that staging in films like 'Rope' and 'Dial M for Murder'.

That type of film is exciting to me. There is a challenge and a sharing of ideas that I don't get from contemporary cinema.

What I have been seeing for the 30 to 40 years has been movies about movies. Or movies about movies about movies. We are on the eve of 'Grindhouse' which is essentially about all the movies the directors watched when they were young - which were in a very strong sense, knock-offs of other movies cross-pollinated with tabloid news.

I'm just tired of it. It is not interesting to me.