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Movie Snobbery Begins at Home

October 22nd, 2010 · 18 Comments

Tyler Cowen Alex Tabarrok considers some economic explanations for the recent inversion of the traditional dominance of movies over television as “elite entertainment,” primarily the rise of pay-TV and the growing importance of the international market for movies. (Explosions don’t need to be translated, after all.) That’s surely part of it, but I’d be more inclined to emphasize the effect of DVR and the rapid collection of TV seasons on DVD. It’s much easier to tell a dense, multilayered story with many characters that unfolds over the course of a full season when you know viewers aren’t at any risk of missing an episode and getting lost, and in particular when they can go back and refresh their memories rather than having to keep the whole story cached in memory in the week between episodes.

On the movie side, though, I don’t think it’s that movies as such are in decline as elite entertainment, but that technology has effectively forced new highbrow movies to compete with the cinema’s ample back catalog. Twenty years ago, if you wanted to have a “home entertainment center” that could serve as a decent substitute for the theatrical experience, you pretty much had to be willing to drop ten grand and devote a room of your house to it. Now a 50″ high-definition TV can be had for a few hundred dollars, and will fit against the wall of an apartment living room. It’s not a perfect substitute: If you want to get a big group of people together and make a social event of seeing a big flashy action movie with the latest special effects, the theater is still probably your best bet. But if you want to watch The Seventh Seal or Citizen Kane with a couple other people, it’s a viable alternative in a way that the smaller standard-def TV you’d find in an equivalent middle class home circa 1990 just wasn’t. Moreover, for the cost of a $10 monthly Netflix subscription, you’ve got an ample and growing library of both classic and recent movies available on demand. Once those costs are sunk, and once the audio-visual quality is high enough, a lot of people will actively prefer to watch a quieter or more thoughtful movie at home with a glass of wine.

Here, again, if you’re in the mood for (say) a big flashy sci-fi action movie, improvements in filmmaking technology mean that the latest theatrical release is going to have enough of an advantage to be competitive with the back catalog. Whatever else you might say about it, Inception is visually a lot more impressive than most old action sci-fi movies. (There are exceptions—Blade Runner springs to mind—but not a ton.) But if you’re looking for a smart, artistically shot film with smart dialogue? Unless you’re a truly voracious film buff, there are probably a couple hundred Criterion Collection films you haven’t seen that are superior on those dimensions to anything made this year. Time and tech do a lot more at the margin to improve flicks than films.

I haven’t got any actual data to back this up, mind you. But my guess is that a lot of the audience for highbrow film isn’t necessarily watching less of them—though insofar as the quality of TV has improved, there’s probably some substitution effect—but that they’re probably watching more older movies at home. In the short term, with theatrical box office still viewed as a leading metric of a film’s success, that could make it harder for those types of movies to get greenlit. In the long run, one hopes, the same technological trends will make it easier to finance and distribute films at lower cost, and without necessarily going through the studio system.

Tags: Art & Culture · Economics


       

 

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Freddie // Oct 22, 2010 at 8:38 pm

    I’ve read a lot of ruminations on this phenomenon and I think that all of them, this one included, have missed what is to me the most salient element: the rise of the TV blog.

    Look, I’ll be upfront: I’m a major skeptic when it comes to this arty TV movement. I think every show that’s been a part of it has been overrated, some wildly so. (Even my beloved Wire.) TV doesn’t work as an artistic enterprise for the same reason that comic books don’t: perpetual narrative doesn’t work. Nothing is more important in narrative than arc, and you can’t build an effective 50 episode or 100 episode or whatever arc, in my experience. My picks for the best TV shows of all time are filled with episodic, contained-narrative shows like The Twilight Zone or The Simpsons.

    Anyway you really can’t discount the importance of the pretentious TV blog phenomenon to this rise. Have you ever tried to count, even briefly or casually, how many blogs have regular Mad Men blogging? It’s insane. I believe that literally millions of words have been written about Mad Men online. Millions. And it’s a show that’s had, what, 50 episodes?

    The appeal, I think, is based on a depressing facet of modern smart-kid culture: the unspoken, subconscious, and overwhelming desire among many for their choices in consumption to grant them the same praise and notoriety that artists gain from creation. (Before anybody points this out, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.) Nobody consciously or explicitly believes that they’re going to get praise heaped on them because of what media they consume, of course. But I think that there is an unconscious urge in that direction, and I think it is entirely a product of a culture that has so eliminated any avenues for the production of spirituality, depth, or wisdom that more and more emotional weight gets thrown onto our national obsession, consumption. And so the indie rock kid assembles his ordinal ranks of likes and dislikes with such meticulous precision because, lacking artistic ability himself, and divorced from the traditional vehicles of emotional maturity, he sees no other way to elevate or distinguish himself from his peers. The Mad Men blog series is part of the same phenomenon, the desperate signaling of people with no other way to demonstrate value, considering how society has whittled away at the options within my lifetime.

    That almost none of us gets to be an artistic genius is a cruel truth and one that most of us, I think, never 100% gets over. I have sympathy for people, and again– it won’t take long for you to find me doing similar things. But consumption is not creation. Your choices of media say nothing meaningful about you. The way that you enjoy Mad Men or The Wire or whatever else can’t separate you from anyone else in your peer group, your generation or your culture. The sad coda to all this that that Mad Men blogs are, as an edifice, awful. Unremittingly useless. Filled to the brim with portentousness and useless abstraction…. But whatever the case, about either the quality of Mad Men or the quality of the blog posts written about it, I think that this is a major unspoken element of the rise of arty TV: the use of these TV shows as fodder for the production of reaction and criticism, and the use of that reaction and criticism as proxy for the creation of genuinely new, genuinely valuable art.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Oct 22, 2010 at 8:57 pm

    I tend to think “consumption” gets a bad rap, actually; pace Clay Shirky, high quality consumption would be a better use of an enormous amount of time devoted to mediocre creation. And ultimately, of course, it’s a prerequisite to high quality creation. Anyone who actually creates more than they consume is unlikely to have created anything that would be worth anyone else’s while to consume.

  • 3 Freddie // Oct 22, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    A better use for who?

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Oct 22, 2010 at 10:48 pm

    Them, society, take your pick. I don’t want to overstate the case—there’s obviously value in mediocre creative acts, just as there’s value in playing a sport you’re not very good at (rather than just sitting and watching great athletes).

    But if it were really true that your choices of media said nothing meaningful about you—if they were just little signaling devices—it would be mysterious what was so great or valuable about the creation of great original art. Why praise creation if there’s no worth in consuming the created product? There’s value in it because exposure to great music and fiction and drama schools our emotions, deepens our inner lives, and shapes how we perceive the world. (Which is one reason you will not find many good writers who are not also voracious readers, or many good directors who were not first connoisseurs of film.)

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  • 6 Matt D // Oct 23, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    #5 FTW.

  • 7 Yglesias » The Back Catalog // Oct 24, 2010 at 10:30 am

    […] Sanchez writes that highbrow film is increasingly facing competition from its own back-catalog: On the movie side, though, I don’t think it’s that movies as such are in decline as elite […]

  • 8 TD // Oct 24, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    The appeal, I think, is based on a depressing facet of modern smart-kid culture: the unspoken, subconscious, and overwhelming desire among many for their choices in consumption to grant them the same praise and notoriety that artists gain from creation. (Before anybody points this out, I’m as guilty of this as anyone.) Nobody consciously or explicitly believes that they’re going to get praise heaped on them because of what media they consume, of course. But I think that there is an unconscious urge in that direction, and I think it is entirely a product of a culture that has so eliminated any avenues for the production of spirituality, depth, or wisdom that more and more emotional weight gets thrown onto our national obsession, consumption.

    There may be no more trenchant commentary on this phenomenon than that of Hipster Runoff.

  • 9 That Fuzzy Bastard // Oct 24, 2010 at 4:18 pm

    “If it were really true that your choices of media said nothing meaningful about you—if they were just little signaling devices—it would be mysterious what was so great or valuable about the creation of great original art. “

    Yes! Thank you, Julian! In the rush to condemn hipsters, a lot of people seem to condemn the very act of spectating, the very concept of an audience. And one of the worst things you can do for any serious art is to condemn the desire to be part of an audience.

    In fact, one thing that always accompanies periods of great artistic creation are large numbers of people eager to be the sort of people who consume “the new art”. There wouldn’t be modernism, for example, had there not been a large contingent of young-and-not-so-young people enthusiastic about reading the latest piece by T.S. Eliot or Virgnia Woolf, and yes, lording it over those who hadn’t.

  • 10 Jake // Oct 25, 2010 at 12:01 am

    Funny you’re writing about this now — I just posted a longish review of Edward Jay Epstein’s The Hollywood Economist, which discusses how Hollywood movies are now made and marketed. On the whole, I think his book tends to support Tarrabok’s position.

    But my guess is that a lot of the audience for highbrow film isn’t necessarily watching less of them—though insofar as the quality of TV has improved, there’s probably some substitution effect—but that they’re probably watching more older movies at home.

    My guess is that not as many high-brow films are being made because studios need ad campaigns in the tens of millions of dollars to get their movies in theaters. High-brow films just don’t attract a large enough audience to justify the investment. So not as many get made, at least in terms of medium- to large-budgets.

    That high-brow movies get made on low-budgets and independently is certainly true, but I’m guessing that Hollywood’s focus means those films just aren’t getting a lot of attention from studio executives, who greenlight based on marketing.

    Anyhow, the book is relatively short and very much worth reading for anyone interested in how the production side of movies affects what we see in theaters.

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    […] of consumption will allow the quality and variability of the product to rise.  As the ever-astute Julian Sanchez points out: It’s much easier to tell a dense, multilayered story with many characters that unfolds over the […]

  • 14 Ron&Peter // Oct 31, 2010 at 9:00 am

    Julian, your excellent and thought provoking analysis was more than entertaining. It has had an economic stimulus effect — which is more than one can say for most of the verbiage emanating from Washington. Your description of the advantages of the 50 inch HD unit, has convinced us to buy one for Christmas. Hope you can come out to Roseland Farm over the holidays and help us plan an appropriate movie fest to inaugurate it.

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