What do ‘the people’ want?

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Mark Harris is by far the best of Entertainment Weekly’s three rotating back-page columnists. (Dalton Ross is too hipster-ironic-snarky, and why should I care what Stephen King has to say about anything other than books?) His entry in the June 1 issue is a prime example of his insight and intelligence. I nodded in agreement through the entire piece, and I’m not much of a nodder.

Entitled “Power to the People,” the column addresses this common Hollywood lie: “We’re just giving the people what they want.”

It’s the defiant lie told by those who want to pretend that their failures of ambition are your fault -— that because “the people” eat what they’re fed, they must like it. The moneymen behind Spiders of the Shrekibbean brag about meaningless numbers (Spider-Man 3 had the biggest opening weekend of all time!) and shrink from meaningful ones, like the fact that Spider-Man 3 cost more and will likely gross less than the first two. And they start planning Spider-Man 4 because “the people” want it, and try not to listen to the moviegoers saying “Ehh, 3 was okay, the second one was better.” Because nothing that anyone says after the movie counts.

Preach it, brother! Just because a lot of people saw something doesn’t mean they all liked it. It doesn’t even mean most of them liked it. As Harris says elsewhere in this article:
The sentence “The movie was great — it was just marketed badly,” which is said every hour in Hollywood, is true exactly 3 percent of the time, whereas “The movie was bad — it was just marketed really well,” which is almost never said, is true 97 percent of the time.

“Revenge of the Sith,” “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Phantom Menace,” “Home Alone,” “Independence Day,” and “Three Men and a Baby.” They were all the top-grossing films of their respective years. But do you know anyone who LOVES them? Does anyone cite “Home Alone” as one of his or her favorite movies? Of course not. Huge box office doesn’t necessarily mean all of America loved a film. It only means that all of America SAW a film, and there are a lot of possible reasons for that.

Of course, sometimes the two do correlate. Sometimes a film has a huge box office because it is actually well-loved by a lot of people. “Return of the King,” “Toy Story,” and “Saving Private Ryan” were the top-grossers of their years, and a lot of moviegoers genuinely adore them. My point is that it’s not an automatic thing. You can’t point to a #1 film and say, “Oh, the people must want that.” All you know for sure is that a lot of people saw it.

Harris goes on to point out that TV has already realized that America is not one homogenous cluster of like-minded people. “We’ve become a niche nation, and we’re going to stay that way,” he says. He continues:

We don’t all like the same shows; we don’t all want to like the same shows. When the most popular (and most people-powered) TV series is American Idol, and three-quarters of households are happily watching something else every time it’s on, talk of “the people” as a unified entity becomes pointless. (It’s even pointless on Idol itself: Remember when “the people” decided that they liked Taylor Hicks better than Chris Daughtry, and then months later, when their CDs came out, decided they were only kidding?)

This is worth discussing. Twenty years ago, the top-rated show of the week (“The Cosby Show,” in those days) might have as many as 60 million viewers, with half of all the nation’s TV sets tuned in to it. Today, “American Idol” (the current top-rated show) usually scores around 30 million viewers and, as Harris says, about a 25 percent share.

In other words, America has become much more fragmented over time. Cable played a huge part in that, of course, and so has the Internet. With the ability to focus on (and obsess over) the things that you, personally, like, there’s no need to be mainstream. Twenty years ago, it was almost literally true that “most” people watched “The Cosby Show” every week. Today, it’s not even close to literally true that “most” people watch anything. The best you can hope for is a big chunk of the minority. Even the top-rated show is being ignored by 75 percent of the TV-watching population every time it airs.

Movie studios need to follow TV’s lead by accepting — and embracing — the fact that America is composed of dozens and dozens of niches. Only a few million people watch “The Office” every week, but it’s enough for the show to be profitable and stay on the air. And more to the point, the people who do watch it are devoted, loyal, and enthusiastic about it — something that cannot be said for most of the people who have seen “Spider-Man 3.”

But what motivation do movie executives have? As long as the blockbusters keep busting blocks, it doesn’t really matter whether people actually, you know, like them. Yet as Harris points out, those days may be numbered. More and more people are becoming dissatisfied with movies, and with the moviegoing experience. If Hollywood wants to woo those viewers back, they’ll need to try harder to speak to THEM, not just to “the people.”

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