Saturday, July 12, 2008

Throwaway

Real elitism entails, subordinately, forcing other people's leisure to conform to your idea of leisure.

18 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

How do you fit film criticism in that? Aren't movies leisure too? ;)

Zach Campbell said...

Of course movies are leisure.

And this is why Hollywood and its apologists are one of the most elitist institutions of leisure in history, for it demands that everyone.

This is what we might call totalitarian or universalist elitism, wherein commands & imperatives are forced but also, largely, disguised and finessed and "naturalized." This is not to be confused with 'oligarchic elitism' (i.e., parlor games of the rich & privileged) which I think is a result, a vestige, of hierarchical elitism enforced elsewhere in the social field, and not a utilitarian reproductive function of that social matrix itself.

I do not also mean to say that we should never debate about principles, about aesthetics, that there is no crossover and confrontation between individuals. (Otherwise I would simply be arguing for the same model that we can already see, piecemeal, in existence today: "niche" consumerist leisure, which is really just an imperative of market forces helping to gloss over brutality.) There are fine lines and important distinctions between an interpretation of "to each his own" which respects individuality and autonomy and a competing interpretation of "to each his own" which forestalls debate.

Zach Campbell said...

Sorry, left off the last word in the second sentence: '...it demands that everyone subscribe.'

(And of course I am not speaking literally that every single human being must love Hollywood--this should be clear--but rather of an impulse, a motive: the drive for the largest possible market share.)

HarryTuttle said...

I though Hollywood was more of a demagogue model. That's why they resort to test audience to change the ending before to release a movie. I would say they are dependent on the taste of the mass. They don't do anything without market studies and confirmed formulae. They observe what the people wants for leisure and they deliver accordingly.

Hollywood executives produce movies they don't care to watch themselves. It's not like they impose their own taste on others.

I can see how the marketing forces look hegemonic and totalitarian, but still they would have a hard time to impose another leisure that wasn't embraced by the mass already.

Zach Campbell said...

Harry, I don't think you're understanding me correctly; the fact that you would write this:

Hollywood executives produce movies they don't care to watch themselves. It's not like they impose their own taste on others.

... is proof we're not tuned in to the same wavelength here. If it works for you to think that Hollywood is merely responsive to pre-established mass vulgarian leisure, go for it. I think it's manifestly wrong, but perhaps the conception has utilitarian value ...

Alex said...

Harry,

The thing you should read is Jonathan Rosenbaum's Movie Wars.

The thing that one can never assume that is what is being provided to markets is necessarily what the consumers want.

1. The kind of economic competition you describe best fits very competitive markets: lots of competitors, low barriers to entry, lots of buyers and suppliers. The movie industry is one of the industries LEAST fitting that description: an industry heavily oligopolized since very near it's inception (in the US, Japan and Weimar Germany), a handful of movie theater chains dominating exhibition, high barriers to entry in the past (much lower now, but it did have quite high barriers until comparatively recently), etc.

2. There's really no way an industry - particularly one creating nonexistant fantasies (there's no technical specification or limits on what can be shown on a screen, unlike, say, chemical manufacturing) - can know what the "market" wants in the way you're suggesting. Rather, it operates by a set of useful heuristics - i.e. it's own internal pre-existing ideologies - about what potential consumers "want". Much of that pre-existing ideology is created to match the product that the industry itself needs to sell (for it's own internal business purposes).

3. Examples: The US industry convinced itself in the 1950s and 1960s that people wanted to see sword-and-sandal epics made in Italy, when the industry just wanted to take advantage of financing and tax structures, something having no relation with what the public wanted. Currently, the US industry continually propagandizes the public that special effects are what the public wants. The reason behind that is only entities with large capital bases can make special-effects filled movies, while anyone can now make a love story.

HarryTuttle said...

Well, it's obviously an equally absurd generalisation to say that Hollywood is omniscient about what the public wants, I agree. It's more complicated than that because it involves a lot of subjectivity, but statistics are pretty reliable. Calling "elitist" everything and its contrary doesn't make sense...

You could call the process of presidential election "elitist" because only 2 major parties can present a candidate, which are always coming from the educated and wealthy politician minority... but it's still a democratic process that must pander to its base to succeed.

The success of commercial movies is no different. The industry might be owned by a minority of "majors", but they can't do everything they want, or else would face bankruptcy. They have money and power, but outside of brainwashing their "buyers" with marketing campaign they can't turn their own "leisure" into a sure blockbuster.

Are you telling me that if there is no foreign film distributed in the USA it's only because Hollywood doesn't want? That if there was 20% of subtitled films on the screens tomorrow the American public would embrace instantly what has been denied from their free will?
I wouldn't bet my money on that.
I'm not denying that Hollywood is responsible for a good deal of "conditioning" the "mainstream taste", but still there is always the risk to fail to meet the assumed expectation of the audience.

dave said...

this conditioning is done by means of awareness-creation (advertising). If you make someone expect to like something, they are more likely to do so (research on coke-pepsi blind taste tests shows that blind, people prefer pepsi; with brand awareness, coke wins by a wide margin. brain scans of these processes show that other areas of the brain become involved when subjects are brand-aware, suggesting that advertising itself creates positive reinforcement enough to change the way people taste soda).

Alex said...

"The success of commercial movies is no different. The industry might be owned by a minority of "majors", but they can't do everything they want, or else would face bankruptcy."

If we examine the pattern of exits (i.e., bankruptcy or exiting film entirely for other lines of business) in the film industry, there's very rarely (in fact, almost never) been an exit from making films of a major studio because of the studio's decisions about which films to make perse. Generally, the events which forced general industry distress were:
1. the rise of TV (which severely damaged both the US and Japanese film industries).
2. the antitrust decisions of the 1940s and 1950s to separate film exhibition from film creation, and the concurrent legal downfall of the studio contract system (long-term contracts with talent).
3. Over-leverage in the 1920s by the studios in building their exhibition arms.

As long as the industry could reliably maintain a stable oligopolized distribution channel, except perhaps for the single instance of UA's experience with Heaven's Gate (and UA was always a minor), no major studio has ever been threatened with downfall solely due to choice of films.

HarryTuttle said...

Dave,
this conditioning is something that already exists in society, and Hollywood only exploits an inclination/weakness in people for novelty/spectacular/technology show off. Parents infatuation is always stronger for the newborn baby, a man would prefer to trade a 20 years old girl for his older wife, readers demand for exclusive scoops in their newspapers, geeks want the latest phone/computer technology... Hollywood doesn't have to manipulate human nature much to catch the attention of their audience with "never seen before" formulae.

Alex,
you didn't prove me that the safe choices made by the majors were not made to comply with what the public wants. I would prefer you cite me examples of movies where they gambled to push their transgressive taste against the general trend in society.
The Avant Garde might risk to confront social taboos at times (thus get very violent responses/rejection), but the mainstream movies never opposed what the public was already prepared to "like" in the first place.

And what has any of this to do with taste-making elitism?

HarryTuttle said...

"While their broadcast television counterparts are eyeing the prospect of an advertising collapse with growing alarm, others hope that the tendency for consumers to look for lower-cost forms of entertainment and stay at home more could even lead to an uplift in revenues."
The Guardian, July 14, 2008.

This contradicts my point about hi-tech appeal, but this is a trend emerging from the people, not a new fad imposed by the studios PR. Just like the success of low-budget The Blair witch Project wasn't predicted by Hollywood.

dave said...

Harry,
the advertising for coke is not something that exists in society. the means by which coke advertises of course plays on existent/human/natural triggers, but the fact of the advertising itself creates positive sensations about the soda. Why does Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Amelie succeed financially where equally action-packed or cute foreign films do not?

Alex said...

"you didn't prove me that the safe choices made by the majors were not made to comply with what the public wants. I would prefer you cite me examples of movies where they gambled to push their transgressive taste against the general trend in society."

1. No one can prove a negative.
2. Transgressive? I don't really see where that interpretation is coming from.
3. Again, the question is what is "public" and what is "wants"? Movie studios may serve some purposes well (and thus be very profitable doing that) but ignore other wants or potential wants entirely. It's a very common business phenomenon that the established players in an industry define amongst themselves (not as a conspiracy, but as a common business understanding of "what works") the kinds of products that they all make, and often the firms will not step out of that self-definition for decades and even longer. As Rosenbaum points out (and Rosenbaum's family owned a medium-size chain of theaters for many decades, so he's quite familiar with the business), much of cinema attendance is for social purposes (dating, spending time with family, getting into an air-conditioned building, etc. i.e. only very peripherally related to anything being shown on the screen) and a studio can capture massive amounts of business simply by being open on a large number of screens.

HarryTuttle said...

I didn't mean to start a nit picky rhetorical battle... Sorry for using the word "prove", I meant your historical facts were not conclusive vis-à-vis the audience's response.

Crouching Tiger and Amélie are exceptions, if you address my subs question. The general trend is 5% of foreign films on American screens, so is it the design of Hollywood tycoons or is it the disinterest of the (average) American public? I think it's both.

Alex I agree with what you say. But regardless for the reason why people gather at the theatre, they still pick one movie over another one (see B.O. results) and this choice is taste (whether it is culturally conditioned or not). Every movies come with the same pop corn and A/C. The number of prints is one factor yes. So do you think that the success of a movie is directly and solely dependent on the number of prints? I believe it's not always the case, that's why Studios can't predict which movie will become a blockbuster, the marketing campaign, the overwhelming visibility, the bankable star-system, the buzz is not enough to swing the taste of the audience.
All they can do is to come up with least risky niches, formulaic recipes that "work". But if they could control what the public want they would not bomb as often.

The Coke/Pepsi is an either/or proposition. Movies are more complicate than that.

Alex said...

"The Coke/Pepsi is an either/or proposition. Movies are more complicate than that."

Shouldn't the example of Coke and Pepsi give you considerably more pause over your model of product development than you exhibit? In fact, the reality of Coke and Pepsi shows even more starkly that firms can severely manipulate markets. There's no external economic reason why there should be only two dominant soft drink companies (where there's no technological or physical barrier to entry whatsoever, which is not the case with film). Yet there are precisely 2 (two) dominant players in the industry and that has remained extremely stable for more than 60 years.

The fact that an industry with essentially no barriers to entry can result in a global duopoly, should give you some pause that this could even more easily occur in an industry with higher barriers to entry.

HarryTuttle said...

OK, let's see.
In my mind it was more your "blind test" that was an either/or proposition than the economic model actually. Either you like or not soda, either you like Coke or Pepsi. There is no global choice there, it's a closed experiment.
Then, a soda is a product that replicates itself and get its consumers used to a very particular taste, once they are hooked up it's less difficult to keep them coming back. And the whole feud "are you Coke? or are you Pepsi?" is a "you're either with us or against us" kind of mentality that pleases the people, they feel they belong to something. This competition obviously help to boost the sales of both, than actually hurt either of them. (Remember when someone from Coke tried to sell the secret recipe to Pepsi a few years back?)

Now, the movie industry doesn't have this inherited tradition/fidelity of a captive crowd coming back to the identical product. Even the business of sequels isn't even close. Movies have to seduce the audience all over again each time. The consistence of an identified Studio tradition is far from that model. And the mainstream audience doesn't pick a film from its brand name (not even from the auteur's name!). There is no real competition between studio "brands".

The reliance on sequels and remakes is closer to what you guys are talking about here. Though it's not a general rule, they are not the majority of the output.

Alex said...

Harry,

Again, you are not thinking about your models of economic behavior carefully. Your initial assumptions do not match with the reality of the industry (it's an oligopoly and an extremely stable one). Your conclusions require a highly competitive marketplace with many firms entering and exiting, which is most certainly what we haven't had in the film industry since at least the late 1920s (if not before then).

It's simply not valid to claim that an industry which has the characteristics that the film industry has is theoretically likely to fully meet all market needs. You need to show that a market containing only 6 firms with over 90% market share will perform in the way you claim it will.

HarryTuttle said...

Though you're comparing Movie Major Studios with Soda corporation which are two things at once, both a brand and a flagship product. So which one are you talking about?

There might be only a handful of studios (and you bet I hate oligarchy), but it's not in there interest to put all their eggs in the same basket, like Coca does with its exclusive deal with McDonalds worldwide. A Studio cannot bank on a single product, a single film.
There are many players entering/exiting the market of film distribution, they aren't firms, they are movies.
Movie studios are bankers, they fund movies. So it doesn't matter there are few banks, as long as it's in their interest to sustain the rise of new faces, to scout talents, to bring novelties to the audience. So their policy is not to lock the playing field... they always want the widest population to like the next product they put out.

CocaCola is CocaCola. You can bank on it for ever, because people keep coming back to this identifiable and "immuable" beverage.

Zach's original quote maybe doesn't concern the movie industry. But even though the studio oligopoly might be a closed circle of tycoons, but this doesn't translate into a narrow spectrum of redundant products at the screen end of the market.

If you want to become a studio owner, maybe you can be pissed at this oligopoly. But film lovers who want diverse movies aren't as restricted in their taste as you suggest.

And your remark is even less true as time goes, because of the development of indies and DIY cinema. Movies don't require an expensive infrastructure anymore to become popular...