Hollywood: Just Another Niche Market

I couldn’t do it.

Oh how I envied Jeff, Roger, Steve, the Manolo, the GPs and Andrew Leigh. Oh how tempting it felt to live blog the Oscars myself. But that would mean…watching the Oscars. (Sadly, I lack Goldstein’s ability to accurately live blog an event I’m not directly observing…) And despite owning God-only knows how many movies on disc and tape, and loving the experience of seeing a great film in a darkened theater, I just couldn’t make myself watch the Oscars.

Instead, I decided to make a little entertainment of my own.

For a variety of reasons, I’ve been neglecting recording my own music since the fall of last year, although I was in mid-recording of a new song. But last night, armed with a relatively new acoustic guitar, a decent condenser mic, and a copy of Sonar 5 that I haven’t really explored in depth yet, I recorded a variety of guitar licks. This evening, I “comped” them down into a single pretty darn good lead line, and then played stand-up bass underneath–or at least an extremely realistic sampled synthesizer version of stand-up bass. I had forgotten a big part of the enjoyment of music making for me is what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi would call “Flow“: that hypnotic trance-like state when you’re honing your craft, and creating something new.

The ability to make your own entertainment is a big, big part of the Army of Davids culture, and one reason why, as I wrote a few years ago for TCS, that Silicon Valley and Hollywood are engaged in a quiet culture war with each other–Hollywood wants its audience as passive as possible, but Silicon Valley (and the rest of the computer industry, no matter where it’s located) makes its money by selling tools that allow people to either make their own entertainment, or modify Hollywood’s product to their heart’s content via iPod playlists, video mash-ups, and all sorts of other ultra-high-tech playtimes.

While we frequently tee-off on the L.A. Times (who in the Blogosphere doesn’t?), this essay by Patrick Goldstein is a pretty accurate snapshot of the clash between top-down and bottom-up culture:

We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbuster movies, hit TV shows and top-selling CDs, but fewer events that capture the communal pop culture spirit. The action is elsewhere, with the country watching cable shows or reading blogs that play to a specific audience.In the movie business, for example, many of the most profitable films in recent years haven’t been costly sequels, but low-budget comedies and horror films that could be cheaply marketed to a loyal fan base.

No one is sneezing at the profits from the “Harry Potter” series, which has grossed about $3.5 billion worldwide. But the most envied business model in Hollywood is the one at Lionsgate Films, whose two “Saw” horror movies, made for a combined cost of $6 million, have racked up $142 million in domestic box office alone.

Talk about the power of niches. For all their accolades, none of this year’s best picture nominees — “Brokeback Mountain,” “Capote,” “Crash,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich” — has made as much money as “Saw II.” The biggest hit is “Brokeback Mountain,” with just over $75 million so far.

There is another, even more radical shift in today’s pop culture that is helping to undermine the Oscars and other tradition-bound award shows. For years, the Oscars have mattered because the awards served as a barometer of cultural heft. Just the name alone — the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — has the air of high-minded authority.

Millions of moviegoers who would’ve been wary of seeing a challenging film like 1969’s “Midnight Cowboy” or 1999’s “American Beauty” caved in and plunked their money down, soothed by the academy’s best picture badge of distinction.

But this elite, top-down culture is being supplanted by a raucous, participatory bottom-up culture in which amateur entertainment has more appeal than critically endorsed skill and expertise.

The most obvious example is “American Idol,” which has tested its ratings clout against the Grammys and the Winter Olympics, easily trouncing its competition.

In top-down culture, subtlety and sophistication rule. But like so much of today’s bottom-up culture, “American Idol” is far more about aspiration than art. It is a musical kissing cousin of MTV’s “The Real World,” allowing us to wallow in its subjects’ depressingly banal dreams and show biz ambitions.

It’s telling that “Idol” devotes much of its airtime to interviews in which contestants rhapsodize about their yearnings for stardom, excitedly recalling their first visit to Hollywood Boulevard or their first trip down a paparazzi-strewn red carpet.

Even though the show, for me, is little more than a tedious night at a karaoke bar, its contestants offering second-rate renditions of familiar pop fluff, it has captured the imagination of its young, largely female audience. They don’t need any gray-bearded critics to tell them what they like — they prefer creating their own stars.

Last summer, during the height of Tom Cruise’s sofa-jumping meltdown, I asked a friend’s 11-year-old daughter her opinion of Cruise. She said, forget about him. “Do you know [“American Idol” contestant] Bo Bice? He’s much cooler.”

The era of the suffering artist is over, replaced by the insufferably self-confident wannabe. After a thoroughly forgettable rendition of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” the other night, singer Brenna Gethers was asked by Paula Abdul how she thought she did. “I think I did wonderful,” she said, full of assurance. “I think the audience loved it, and I think America loved it.”

The lone dissenting voice on the show is that of Simon Cowell, who with his British accent and disdain for his fellow judges’ slack standards, is a perfect symbol of the top-down culture. Scornful of mediocrity, he’s a voice of sanity on the show, often wearily lecturing contestants about their show biz delusions. Still, he seems to be fighting a losing battle, cast as a highbrow scold whose deflating opinions are regularly played for comic relief.

Our bottom-up culture puts little premium on subtle craft, not to mention expert opinion, whether it’s Olympic judges or academy members. Young people want to be a member of a group, encouraged by their peers.

I think Patrick Goldstein is awfully dismissive of “bottom-up culture” as being purely a medium of the young: there are plenty of amateur musicians, amateur video makers, and other hobbyists who aren’t exactly kids–and have lots of disposable income to spend on their activities. (I know–I write for some of their magazines; I get paid partially via the revenue raised by their publishers from advertising expensive products to readers with sufficient disposable income to afford them.) And I’m not sure, as I carefully adjust the timing on a synthesized bass note, how much craft is being jettisoned today by amateurs. (You could make an equally strong case that it’s been lost by professionals as well–just turn on your radio. And as screenwriter William Goldmanfamously quipped, “Every Oscar night you look back and realize that last year was the worst year in the history of Hollywood”.)But this L.A. Times piece is spot-on: Hollywood is rapidly becoming just another niche entertainment product. And as it rewards films that are aimed at coastal niche audiences, and critically shuns the movies that reached the widest viewers, it has only itself to blame.

At this point, I’m sure I risk coming across like my parents, wondering why so few people are making entertainment these days that interests me. But then, as Mark Steyn recently noted, Tinseltown’s sounding even more antediluvian at the moment, trapped mining controversies that are no long controversial; both ignoring today’s issues, and half its potential domestic audience.

On the other hand, my parents’ generation had to rely almost exclusively on Hollywood for their entertainment: only the stars themselves could afford their own in-home recording studio–and video production at home was strictly science fiction.

But yesterday’s science fiction has a way of becoming reality. And these days, reality is often much more enjoyable than Hollywood. Not to mention its self-congratulatory awards show for a job well done.

Update: Alexandra von Maltzan links with a post crowned with one of her trademark Photoshopped confections. She quoted my paragraph about digital video and home recording, but it’s worth noting that digital still photography, Photoshop, and especially Weblogs are all part of the same trend of creating entertainment–and opinion and news–from the bottom-up, rather than passively being a receptor to mass media. Which doesn’t make the entertainment industry too thrilled, either. (And we already know what most journalists think of blogs.)

Late Update:A big welcome to Mr. Steyn’s readers! Please look around, we’re sure there’s lots more here that you’ll enjoy.



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