The thrust of this N.Y. Times box-office analysis piece by David Halbfinger, which I read yesterday but was unable to respond to due to the lethargy it inspired, is that audiences always go for movies that seem to promise a fluttery, quaalude-like emotional high — especially when there’s a sense that the usual chaos and uncertainty of life (9/11, Iraq War, increasing global warming) is more acute and/or bothersome than usual.
When Jack Haley, Jr.‘s That’s Entertainment! came out in June 1974, after years of ’60s-style social turmoil plus the ongoing Vietnam War backdrop plus two heavy years of Watergate scandal, the slogan that sold the movie was, “That’s Entertainment — boy, do we need it now!”
The age-old old theory is that mainstream moviegoers are emotional alcoholics in normal times, but if the headlines seem more disturbing than usual their choices tend be more reactionary. Give them a film that promises some kind of agreeable emotional beer-buzz and they’ll probably give it a shot. Give them a movie that smacks of herbal tea, strong coffee, mineral water or some other non-alcoholic ingredient, and chances are they’ll either steer clear or adopt a wait-and-see approach.
“What worked was classic, get-away-from-it-all entertainment,” Rob Moore, Paramount’s marketing and distribution chief, tells Halbfinger “What didn’t was things that were more challenging and esoteric.”
“They showed no appetite for a critique of their eating habits in Fast Food Nation,” Halbfinger writes. They weren’t ready to fly along on United 93, no matter how skilled its expose of homeland insecurity. They didn’t care to see combat or suffer its after-effects in Flags of Our Fathers. And even Leonardo DiCaprio couldn’t interest them in touring the ravaged Africa of Blood Diamond.
“While Al Gore‘s prophecies in An Inconvenient Truth produced a respectable $24 million for Paramount, it was the message-movie exception that proved the rule. The big money was to be made making people laugh, cry and squeeze their dates’ arms — not think.”
That said, I don’t blame anyone for avoiding Blood Diamond, although it appears that reviews weren’t the main reason, and I can understand why GenY moviegoers were averse to seeing the boomer-oriented Flags of Our Fathers.