It’s that time of year again.
Forget ISIS, Obamacare, and American Presidential politics—still over a year away.
Forget climate change and imperial wars.
Focus on what the American media is about to focus on, the prettiest gowns on Hollywood’s Red Carpet–not a political symbol—and, of course, who among our real royalty will become Academy Award winners.
And did you know that all the contestants are also “gifted” with valuable presents squeezed out of corporations for a promotional plug? Many of the dresses and jewelry is also donated to show off on the night of the show of shows.
It is estimated that more than two billion people will tune in.
Understand what most of the media hype about the glitz and glamour leaves out that movies are not “show art” but show business, and, in fact, a monster global business. That includes TV shows, DVDs and many related “products.” For the companies, its about building brands and libraries that be sold worldwide, over and over.
The scale is immense and, after airplane construction, entertainment is Americas’ #2 industry with the rest of the world a market and supplier, although in many regions governments have mechanism to subsidize production. Here, there are various production incentives and tax breaks.
According to a study by France-based IDATE, “the 2013 world TV market will generate a total business of $323 billion, with 44 percent coming from advertising, 47 percent subscription fees and nine percent public funding. Considering that programming costs account for about 50 percent of total TV outlet income, we can safely assume that content represents at least a $160 billion portion of that amount. As a point of reference, in the U.S., cable networks alone collectively spend over $20 billion a year on programs.
Granted, the U.S. represents nearly 36 percent of the total global TV market, but Europe is not far behind with 30 percent, followed by Asia-Pacific (21 percent), LATAM (nearly nine percent) and MEA (nearly three percent).
In terms of TV/video rights exports, the U.S. generates an estimated $20 billion a year, which, added to the U.S. domestic TV business, would bring the total TV content sales business to nearly $70 billion a year. If we further consider that up to 70 percent of that business is controlled mostly by U.S. studios, some $50 billion is shared among seven companies, for an average of $7 billion each per year….”
So we are not just talking about movie quality here, but programming that sells more than it tells. The marketing is intense and it is a wasteful business.
As one analyst put it, “Indeed, the U.S. television studios’ business model is so unique that no other country has been able to duplicate or replicate it. Basically, this is because it doesn’t make any business sense. Would any other TV industry in the world be willing or able to spend more than $500 million a year on development to come up with shows that have up to an 80 percent failure rate?”
This is where unseen film financiers, slick PR “packagers,” Wall Street firms, savvy accountants, studio executives and armies of dealmakers and hustlers come in.
While the press focuses on ticket sales and revenues, little attention is paid to shopping for loans and monetizing them with transactional revenues. The studio system functions like a bank calculating depreciation and ways to place films in outlets they already own.
The impact that this culture industry has on our politics is increasingly visible and central. The recent controversy over the trashy comedy, “The Interview,” a movie calling for the assassination of a foreign leader, got turned into a symbol of “free speech” to legitimate it after a studio was hacked by critics. We still don’t know who did it—North Korea as the US insists or an insider as many security experts speculate.
And then there’s “American Sniper” directed by Republican Clint Eastwood that lionizes a target hungry soldier in Iraq who had contempt for the locals Ironically, this hero was later killed by a fellow soldier.
And now, there’s the film about Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for civil rights called Selma that has won many accolades but not that many nominations. Black actors are yelling, unfair and implying racism. Unmentioned is that the same thing happened last year to the movie about Nelson Mandela that only won a nomination for a song by Bono. Africans felt dissed by the treatment.
Social scientists who study these things no longer speak in terms like cultural imperialism or the hostility to social change in media establishments. The new buzzwords are cultural-linguistic counter flow and cultural proximity or “asymmetrical interdependence”. Sorry I can’t penetrate the jargon to explain what they are talking about.
Ironically, while explicit social critique is not high on the agenda, there is a pattern of movies that just love to blow the country up.
A publication called The Concourse asks, “How many times have you seen New York City destroyed onscreen? Los Angeles? Kansas? For nearly as long as there have been movies, there have been disaster movies. The map above shows 189+ such cinematic attacks—using a very broad definition of the “disaster” genre—that have afflicted various parts of the United States.”
So, even as it has a need to make money off its audiences, it has no reservations about smashing America to smithereens.
How does the audience make sense of the cultural bombardment it receives from Hollywood? There are thoughtful critics like Anita Watts writing in Film Journal. She makes many points worth considering including:
- There is not enough money to teach media literacy in the schools. We are bombarding kids with content and yet we don’t give them tools to decipher it, let alone defend themselves against it.
- Filmmakers are unable to earn a living even when they consistently make successful films. Budgets have been dropping over the years — and fees go down with them. Movies are few and far between in terms of years for their makers and without overhead deals or teaching gigs, it’s hard for a creator to stay focused on film unless one is wealthy. And of course, net profits grow more of a joke daily (although they don’t have to).
*“Oops, I Farted” is the dominant “specialized” title of desire in these United States Of America. Art film be damned. The gaseous (fictional) title is courtesy of producer Mike Ryan who used it as shorthand for what he saw as most companies’ acquisition strategy: the audience-friendly falsely-transgressive youth-focused star title. Art film is dead. Distribution companies don’t just aim to give people what they want. They also lead as everyone knows that people generally like what they want (The White Hare syndrome). Where are we being led?
So, as we get mesmerized by events like the Oscars, we are left with more and more questions offering fewer answers.