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Selling Sentimentality in the Era of the Snark – Not Easy

Selling a sentimental movie aimed at adults is not an easy feat in the current atmosphere.  The market has given itself over almost completely to the old target demo, that 13-going-on-30 group of young boys and men who are among the few groups still willing to shell out hard-earned dough to go the movies.  Many adult people would just as soon stay home and watch HBO on their plasma HDTV and not have to worry about the cost and the hassle of getting there. Boys and teens don’t care as much – that’s a chance for them to get out of the house and experience a little independence.  Families will take their kids to see any manner of trash just to have something to do on the weekends.  Those young generations are being reared on films that put the (usually male) protagonist in the middle of the muddle that he then saves the day and the world in doing so.  Our younger generations are being reared, essentially, to like movies that are anything but challenging.

Meanwhile, in 2011 we’re stuck in a kind of limbo.  The chatter online is incessant and this year the film offerings have been more divisive among the various critics and discussion streams than they ever have been.  Twitter has clumped people together into mini cliques and teams.  When Margaret was struggling to get seen by people there was the hashtag #teammargaret.  That movie, and movies like Melancholia, Tree of Life seem to be more comfortable to today’s chattering class because in truth, with those movies, they are open to interpretation.  Any film that tells a more linear story, makes a point about the human experience for instance, is given more harsh treatment; if they don’t “relate” to it they don’t “like” it.  There really isn’t any dividing line anymore between critics and fans.  Everyone’s opinion is thrown into the boiling pot.

Critics this year have been sharply divided on all of the films. You see passionate scores of 100 and then terrible scores of 40 and even zero.  Box office is discussed as if it actually means something.  In reality it shouldn’t be called box office at all.  It should be called: how well did this movie draw in the target demographic.  And that isn’t a reliable gauge for quality.  Adults aren’t really paying out the kinds of money the tweens and teens are — so how can we even count box office as being, in any way, important?

The only time it seems to matter is if a movie that really doesn’t hit in the target demo’s wheelhouse manages to make a lot of money. A movie like The King’s Speech brought people out of their homes in droves to buy tickets.

And awards season? We’ll have to see how it goes but so far it isn’t looking pretty.  The groups who vote on the awards are the same groups who write about the awards.  It’s become the most unwieldy of beasts that the studios had to hold many of their movies to embargoes.  Many of them opted to screen the films out in the heartland first, to test them out on actual audiences.  The War Horse team mistakenly thought the fanboys wouldn’t go for it because it is so overly sentimental.  But I guess they forgot how worshipped Steven Spielberg is among the majority of people who write about movies. At this point, Spielberg could make anything and it would be beloved.  But the idea was right: withhold the sentimental movie from widespread chatter.  How were they to know, in War Horse’s case, that it would flop in the opposite direction?

But Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close and We Bought a Zoo are films that simply can’t be sold to the chattering class.  They are too sentimental overall.  The Cameron Crowe film is especially so. And where fanboys and onliners will give Spielberg a pass for the same amount of schmaltz, they won’t extend the same courtesy to Crowe – perhaps that’s because he doesn’t film the epic war scenes that Spielberg did. Spielberg, though, is as popular online as the Muppets and unicorns.

We Bought a Zoo, like most Cameron Crowe movies, and Frank Capra movies to boot, must be given over to completely. What people say about giving yourself over to War Horse, well I couldn’t quite go there, but I could give myself over to Crowe’s movie. I know it isn’t perfect.  It’s a mess in many ways.  Like Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, it seems to have been over-edited and cleaned up to be made more palatable for audiences who aren’t really capable of thinking in complex ways (of course, they CAN think that way but once a test screening goes bad, they start chopping it up to make it better – it hardly ever works).  I loved Matt Damon in the role – the kids were great too.  The message of the film, the preservation of animals – it was an enjoyable experience.  But you have to be willing to abandon logic and go with your heart: some movies you feel. And I knew watching both films that the chattering class was never going to go for it. If it isn’t directed by Steven Spielberg, forget it.

The truth is that the unwieldy beast is difficult to predict.  One never knows what kinds of films will be the flavor of the month – so much goes into it.  How high the expectations are, who comes out first loving the film and therefore setting up a whole bunch of people who want to take it down — this is the current fate The Artist is experiencing.  Or conversely, if a prominent blogger comes down hard on a movie that makes a certain set of film writers want to praise that movie.  If a group of people aren’t let in to the first screening resentment builds.  You see, there are so many factors that influence how people review films and very few of them have to do with the films themselves.

2011 is a year for sentimental movies with scant few exceptions.  The Oscar movies are all tearjerkers, for the most part.  Only Tree of Life and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo stand in stark contrast of this mood.  But The Help, The Descendants, Hugo, War Horse, Midnight in Paris, The Artist and Moneyball are films that celebrate the goodness of people, and feature likable protagonists who are coming to some significant realization about mankind.  These are fine, fine films.  And when you start to add in the rest of the movies this year, like Melancholia, Drive, Harry Potter, you begin to see how dramatically they are juxtaposed against the favored films; you know it’s a weird year when Harry Potter is among the darkest films the year had to offer.  Even Clint Eastwood stepped outside his comfort zone with J. Edgar and that got bashed by the fanboys online but praised by some critics.  Still, its lack of sentimentality and feelgoodism might be what’s keeping it out of the Oscar race.

A recent showdown on Twitter between myself and Devin Faraci had him saying that I should “go back to talking about Oscar movies and stop analyzing film.” I presume what he meant by that was simply that he thought he was better at analyzing film.  Except that where I write about how films impact the Oscar race, he’s a fanboy through and through.  So neither of us can escape the stigma of who we are and what we do. I tried hard not to call him a fanboy because I know that’s an insulting term.  I don’t know what the proper word would be for what he is and what he does.  He’s not a film critic. He’s a fan who writes about film.  Many of the prominent movie writers are that way.   But he has a lot of followers and his opinion matters.

I can’t imagine how hard it is to market any film now that falls outside the fanboy wheelhouse. As long as the fanboys like a movie, publicists don’t have to worry as much.  In fact, they are probably more influential now than actual film critics, whose own voices seem to have less and less impact lately, partly because many of them seem out of touch because they go against popular opinion, and partly because Rotten Tomatoes barely distinguishes between the two.  If you have a website and you write about film you are basically a critic in the online world.

Where does all of this lead us? And why are some sentimental films given a pass this year — The Descendants, The Artist and War Horse, while others are not – Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, We Bought a Zoo. I thought War Horse would get roasted by the critics and the fanboys but the opposite occurred.  I thought Dragon Tattoo would be beloved by the fanboys and maybe hated by the critics. It’s a mixed bag across the board.

And so it is with every Oscar year we turn to the industry own opinion now that the explosion of the critics’ reckoning has passed.  Ballots go out on Tuesday.  And voters will have just two weeks to mark their ballots. They will be watching films with their families during the holidays and those discussions will mete out wholly different conclusions.  It’s not over yet.  But you can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.