Lately a number of people, including Brian Anderson in City Journal, have noticed that Hollywood is in decline. ‘Twas ever thus, I’m afraid. I can remember many saying the same thing when I started writing movies in the early seventies. Indeed, if you look at what was produced in 1939, for example, pretty much everything after that pales in comparison.
Still, Mr. Anderson has a point. Movies are in many ways worse than ever and have the box office numbers to prove it. As he writes:
Film attendance is down a wrenching 12 percent from last year, and a May USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll found that nearly half of American adults go to movies less often than they did in 2000. Some pundits have blamed the rising price of tickets, but in constant dollars a ticket costs less than it did 25 years ago. Others believe that it’s all those DVDs that people are buying-except that DVD sales are slumping, too.
Anderson (quoting the often-moralistic Michael Medved) blames the leftism of Hollywood stars and films for this. Well, maybe. But leftism is certainly not new to Hollywood and its stars. In the glory days, Cagney and Bogart were well known for their left-wing politics and it certainly didn’t stop audiences from seeing them. The likes of Tim Robbins and Sean Penn, no matter what their views, are not even on the same planet when it comes to charisma and interest and never could be, no matter what they produced.
No, the problems for Hollywood are deeper than politics and the production of more movies like Spiderman II (a good programmer which Anderson makes sound like the second-coming of Lawrence of Arabia) is not about to solve them.
Let’s review a few of the obvious ones:
1. The desertion of the core audience of teenage boys for computer games, which, I am told (I’m too stupid to play them myself), are often more original than today’s movies.
2. The continued corporate take-over of Hollywood. It has been going on now for decades and has reached a tipping point. It used to be said that movies were the blending of art and commerce with commerce finally taking precedence. Now, art isn’t even mentioned. Movie studios in the seventies were fun; now they’re like industrial parks making industrial product.
3. The rise of the internet and other alternative forms of entertainment. This is probably the most significant. There’s just plain too much competition for business as usual in Hollywood. If I were twenty and starting out in film today, I wouldn’t even think about Hollywood. I’d go straight to the internet and start from there.
Now, please don’t get me wrong. I take Anderson’s general point that Hollywood should diversify its politics. Who knows – they might even add to the box office in the process. But of course the movies would have to be good, always a lot harder to achieve than choosing your ideological stance, whatever it may be.