Film Fund-amentals: Winds of Change

On the surface, Nikki Finke‘s Autopsy Report on the recent failure of I Don’t Know How She Does It is a good hoot of a read. It offers some stinging observations on the largely stalled career of Sarah Jessica Parker while allowing Harvey Weinstein plenty of room to develop his newly honed impersonation of a cranky geriatric patient.

Not much is really surprising in the article. Aside from Sex and the City, Parker doesn’t really have much of a film career. Despite his boast that 2011 would be a banner year for The Weinstein Company, old Harvey can’t win for loosing. As for Harvey’s theory that the movie was sucker-punched by The Lion King, well that’s still an extremely popular movie (and its conversion to 3D almost makes sense, since the movie was using 3D graphic effects in the first place). Maybe, just maybe, Harvey Weinstein is simply paranoid about Disney. So what. Many of us are paranoid about the Magic Kingdom.

But what is really interesting are the comments to the article. Especially the running themes in some of the comments (skipping the cheap shots at Parker’s looks). Several of the comments go after Weinstein’s notion that Parker has an immediate access to female viewers under the age of 30. Obviously this is a no-brainier. I haven’t a clue what appeals to women under the age of 30, but I know it isn’t Sarah Jessica Parker. No wonder some people in the business have had questions about whether Harvey is firing on full thrusters or not. His gut instinct for the box office needs a strong dose of Maalox.

Quite a few of the comments are refreshingly blunt about their disinterest in the comedic “angst” of a well-to-do upper-class housewife. Many of them reference the movie in terms of the current economic situation and make it clear that they have no interest in (and even a rising hostility toward) an illusory presentation of the current economic order.

In other words, they are mad as hell and they’re not going to take it anymore. This is not a surprising development, but it will come as a surprise to many people working in the film industry. The real problem with a movie like I Don’t Know How She Does It is not that it sucks (though there is a sizable body of argument in that direction). The problem is that it is totally irrelevant to the rapidly emerging new reality. About ten years ago, it might have slipped by as OK. Now, many people are acting as if they’ve just been whacked over the head by a fossil from some prehistoric shopping mall.

We have already given up on the concept that movies are recession-proof (much as the economy has gone past the concept of recession). The current economic situation has reached the point where fear and panic are more easily traded than stocks and bonds. A year ago, I painted a grim picture of the emerging conditions. In retrospect, I think I was too kind in my presentation, and now I don’t even like discussing the economy. Maybe we could talk about something more thrilling, like death or colon exams or any number of other more “fun” topics. However, I also keep getting the distinct impression that there is a major change taking place. Or should I say changes.

A lot has been written about the major changes taking place in virtually every aspect of the film industry, from computer graphics to digital presentation to video-on-demand and download streaming. But there is also a change taking place with the audience. Hollywood is vaguely aware of some of the changes (such as the changing age level of the audience demographics). They are beginning to hear the first rumors of the ethnic and racial changes taking place both within the American public and the audience. In both cases, they have barely made any rational move toward adaptation. Mostly, they hire Morgan Freeman as a means of covering both bases. Good thing Morgan is a strong actor with a high audience likability factor.

So I’m not sure that anyone in the biz is prepared to deal with an audience that is going broke, getting worried and generally just feeling totally pissed as hell. Heck, it’s no wonder the romantic comedy has gone belly-up as a genre. This is not a romantic crowd. It isn’t much of a surprise that three of the biggest comedy films of 2011 so far are The Hangover II, Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses. The humor is more hostile than screwball, and these movies seem to provide a lot of people with a safe venting zone in the theater.

A major shift in audience sensibility is by no means unprecedented. It has happened several times before. For example, there was a slow but very steady shift that took place between the 1950s and the end of the 1960s. But a much more rapid change actually took place during the transition from the silent cinema to the sound era. It wasn’t just the technological change. The American cinema of the 1920s was heavily dominated by the Jazz Age image of slick and dapper leading men and wild, flirtatious flappers. But with the start of the Great Depression, this all came to a screeching halt as the audience just didn’t care anymore. Instead, the ideal leading man of the 1930s was flippant, with a working-class attitude and a hard-edged sensibility that would inspire a generation of French philosophers.

I suspect we are going through a similar process. Exactly how it will evolve remains to be seen. But one thing is for sure, Sarah Jessica Parker better hold on to her day job with the perfume company. I would hate to see her panhandling for her next pair of Blahniks.