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.

 

My Desert Island Producer Pick: Scott Rudin

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Dragon Tattoo Review from Confessions of a Female Filmmaker

26 Comments

  1. akdf
    December 24, 2011

    very true. theres been no consistency this yr. some things get a free pass and others dont.

  2. December 24, 2011

    The reviews of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ stunned me. It was at 65 at Metacritic early on, and then the next time I checked it, it is at a very ugly 40…4 remarkably bad reviews cost it 25 points. It was just weird. After seeing ‘War Horse’ rebound nicely – 70s at both MC and RT – I thought the same will happen to Daldry’s film…and to be fair, it still could, it only has 16 reviews at MC and there will be 40 in the end, and only 43 at RT and there will be 200…but still, it is confusing. The script has been praised by basically everybody who read it, most of the reviews I read, RAVED about Thomas Horn’s lead performance and praised Max von Sydow and Sandra Bullock. I haven’t seen the film, so clearly I can’t form an opinion just yet, all I know that the score is wonderful, definitely Oscar-worthy, and ON PAPER the elements are all there…they just don’t seem to add up, or at least not perfectly. Having said that, there are people who love it and then there are the ones who REALLY hate it.

    Sasha, now that the embargo is off, can you clear this up for me ? Is it really a bad/mediocre film or just a misunderstood one with misinterpreted intentions ? If the script is great and apparently the performances, too, could it be Daldry who didn’t bring his A-game ? Or can we blame the rushed post-production ? Did you like the performances ?

  3. Chris
    December 24, 2011

    Very interesting post to wake up to, enjoyable reading. I am going by the New York papers and was surprised with the good reviews for War Horse and the opposite for Extermely Loud, both of which I plan to see anyway.

  4. OCO300
    December 24, 2011

    @phantom The reviews of ‘Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close’ stunned me. It was at 65 at Metacritic early on, and then the next time I checked it, it is at a very ugly 40…4 remarkably bad reviews cost it 25 points. It was just weird.

    Well you should see how The Artist is doing in the box office

  5. December 24, 2011

    For fuck’s sake OCO, The Artist is doing WELL at the box office. Four weeks in very limited release and it has already made almost $1.5 million.

    Sasha, Ryan, can someone be banned just for being this annoying?

  6. John
    December 24, 2011

    Actually, Sasha, there was a time when I stopped coming to the site regularly for a while, due to Oscar-watching fatigue. But when I saw you started in on analysis, it prompted me to return to the site more often. I don’t always agree with you, but you have a lot of interesting insights that I often don’t find elsewhere, and I appreciate that. Onward and upward, please!

    I don’t know what to make of the decline of traditional film criticism on Oscar races. I’m just glad there are more voices who now have an outlet to talk about movies. People can judge for themselves whether these voices should carry any weight. I’ve never read Faraci, but very few people look good riding a high horse — especially “fanboys” or, maybe more kindly, enthusiasts. But whatever.

    I think there’s always a market for movies that are well done. I haven’t seen Zoo or ELIC, but I suspect they are getting poor reviews because both of them look heavy handed in what they are trying to do. Sentimentality works best when heart strings are pulled, not yanked out of the chest.

  7. OCO300
    December 24, 2011

    @Paddy M. actually $1,498,430 and it made $290,359 in it’s opening weekend ranking #26.

  8. OCO300
    December 24, 2011

    And I think it should be nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars like Hugo wouldn’t you agree Paddy?

  9. Matt
    December 24, 2011

    Sasha-
    I love the site and frequently visit it…but your logic confuses and borderline irritates me sometimes. You bash War Horse for being too sentimental, but favor We Bought a Zoo for wearing it’s heart on its sleeve? I’ve yet to see War Horse, and I LOVE Crowe (thought Elizabethtown was horribly miscast, self indulgent and unrealistic…but still absolutely love that movie), but Zoo just wasn’t very good. Not only was it too sentimental and sweet…every shot was either a medium or close up on one of the stars’ faces. Crowe never pulled back the camera and let his actors act an entire scene. It was irritating too because Damon gave an amazing performance.

    But this is just one example. When someone has a “hip” list, you simply shun it as “the internet’s” list. I know that Drive and The Tree of Life are popular with the Internet generation, but the fact is that The Tree of Life is the most ambitious and audacious films made in recent memory. And your “tweet length” analysis of it was so far off it was kinda insulting to people who love film.

    Again, this all sounds petty and snarky, I really do enjoy the site and look forward to reading your takes on things, but it just feels that you’re not logical/unbiased in your criticisms.

  10. Nevin
    December 24, 2011

    I totally agree with this, I am surprised on the praise for War Horse and some people not liking Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I believe dragon tattoo is David Fincher’s best directing effort and my favorite movie this year. Its an amazing film all the way through, every frame and scene I was hooked. I don’t understand why some people don’t get it. And it seems a lot of dislike for the film is from the story itself, which is a major bestseller around the world. Their not the best novels but their popular because of the characters and the world Larrsson created. It’s why I kept reading the trilogy because of the Salandar character and her relationship to Blomkvist. I believe Zallian and Fincher took what’s great about the novel and took it to whole another level. I am just surprised about the praise for War Horse because I figured people would say that it’s Spielberg, who always does a good job directing, he’s one of the best filmmakers out there, it’s just that it is way to predictable and sentimental, just like a lot of his films. There’s nothing daring or unique just straight family fare. Which there is nothing wrong with, we go to the movies to be entertained. I loved We bought a Zoo it was great film just like all of Crowe’s films, it was one of the best experiences I had at the movies this year. It’s just I think films that are more daring, unique and can push the envelope and still be a fantastic film experience should be praised more.

  11. tombeet
    December 24, 2011

    @Matt: reviewing movies is very subjective. No one has the same taste, so don’t bash her if she thought War Horse was bad, and instead liked We Bought a Zoo.
    If she hates all those kinds of films, she’ll become conservative
    If she likes all the movies that have critical acclaim, we can simply ignore her site and look up to RT or MC scores instead.
    All I mean is everyone has very different opinions about films, I do really appreciate Sasha because she says things exactly what she thinks at THAT moment, it’s better the whole lot other critics who their opinions change depends on how the film’s reputation going.

  12. Patryk
    December 24, 2011

    Excellent analysis, particularly about Spielberg’s free pass. If a woman had made that film, it would have been bashed to shit. But all must hail the mighty $$$ Spielberg, so go figure.

  13. December 24, 2011

    Tree of Life, much as I liked it, is hardly “the most ambitious and audacious films made in recent memory.” Godard, Tarr, Dumont, Weerasethakul, Varda – their ambitions and audacities are at least equal to Malick’s, and they are certainly more radical. They just aren’t American and don’t cast Brad Pitt or Sean Penn.

  14. rufussondheim
    December 24, 2011

    This “trend” towards sentimentality is, I think, been made too much of. It just so happens that was the set of films that was released this year. There are so few “quality” films in any year that to make any statistical analysis of their frequency is probably akin to turning left into a cul-de-sac and expecting it to be I-5 South to Hollywood.

    When you look at the Best Pics of the last few years you have three (The Departed, No Country for Old Men, The Hurt Locker) that are decidely unsentimental and two that are (Slumdog Millionaire and The King’s Speech). So studios aren’t suddenly like “We need more sentimental movies to grab Oscar Gold!” Studios just released the best films that were offered to them, and that was what the best talent chose to make SEVERAL YEARS AGO. Hugo and The Descendants were conceived years ago, long before The King’s Speech upset The Social Network.

    I think the only trend that’s applicable to analyzing the Oscars is the increasing trend for the nominees to coincide with the critic’s choices for the best films of the year.

  15. Laura Stewart
    December 24, 2011

    “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.”

    I usually never comment on this site but this passage has me a bit enraged. Sasha, this is simply not true. My favorite movie of the year– YOUNG ADULT– is in stark contrast to everything you have mentioned, including Dragon Tattoo and Tree of Life (my second favorite film of the year). Young Adult is not about celebrating the goodness of people and certainly does NOT feature a likeable protagonist. I noticed on Twitter you were bashing it for being male-driven… in that, the point of the film is to win over a man. While that may be true on the surface (but within the first few scenes is quickly deconstructed), I think you of all people– someone who is highly capable of analyzing films and seeing through the fog– knows that isn’t the case. Diablo Cody is making a POWERFUL statement on society and our serious love/loathe relationships with controversial figures. In a way, Mavis Gary represents the Hollywood train wrecks that we, as a society, are fascinated with. Mercury acts as a microcosm of our country, or perhaps world. The people in Mercury are in awe of Mavis’ lifestyle but they also simultaneously pity her. That point is made clear near the end of the film. Think of the Lindsay Lohan’s and Kardashian’s of our time– we encourage their behavior yet bash them and pity their foolish existences. For you to not address the brilliance of Cody’s screenplay and the balls to the wall performance by Charlize Theron is disheartening. I have always enjoyed your ferocity and persistence to stand up for films that may not get the recognition they deserve. Yet, you seem very down on Young Adult. It may not be your cup of tea– it isn’t for everyone– but it’s a film that is worthy of recognition whether you like it or not. The performances are fearless and the premise may appear to be simple but it’s got more depth to it than most movies this year. Is Mavis mentally ill? Is she really delusional? What, if anything, separates the two? Is this a symptom of an entitlement complex she developed at a young age? Are her parents to blame? She admits she thinks she’s an alcoholic during breakfast with her parents– and their reaction is jarring. Coupled with the fact that she may have trichotillomania (excessive hair pulling), and the way its addressed in the film is brilliant. I really wish you would have written more about YOUNG ADULT or at least gave it a few mentions on your site. Your love for Dragon Tattoo is admirable, but I don’t understand your dismissal of YOUNG ADULT.

  16. Mac
    December 24, 2011

    I agree, younger generations ARE being reared on “easy” movies.

    Gone are the days when movies like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Snake Pit, Hawaii, Lawrence of Arabia, Rear Window, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Godfather, or Kramer vs. Kramer topped the year-end boxoffice (their respective years). Believe it or not, these movies, and many more like them, made bank.

    Starting in the mid-Seventies, movies started getting dumber with the advent of Spielberg and Lucas. They can be great, but their imitators, of which there are many, tend to offer up crap. General audiences have eaten it up, with the help of the money-grubbing, unimaginative studios.

    Studios subscribed to the Spielberg/Lucas formula to beef up boxoffice: In comes action, machismo, action, violence, action, and special effects. And action.

    Out go female leads, complex dialogue, romance, song, dance, women screenwriters (and their point-of-view), melodrama. Sure, you will see any of the above in small doses, but you rarely see them as part of a studio’s tentpole picture.

    So now we have simple-minded movies that are being fed to the masses, and I believe it’s because one gender is getting all the attention.

  17. rufussondheim
    December 24, 2011

    The reason boys get all of the attention is because they are the ones willing to shell out the big bucks. There’s obviously an audience for female-centered flicks, but the studios haven’t put out enough quality product to consistently show that female-centered films can be profitable too.

    The funny thing is, movies like Bridesmaids, The Help, Mamma Mia, The Devil Wears Prada are much cheaper to make than movies like Transformers, Thor and the X-Men.

    The studios are micromanaging their product to death. They need to let talented people be talented. Second-guessing them causes them to release sterile product. They need to learn to nurture their talent, not stifle it.

  18. Munro202
    December 24, 2011

    This is my first year of Oscar-watching that I’m actually getting angry at how things are going – specifically for the lack of notice for Dragon Tattoo.

  19. Sam
    December 25, 2011

    @ Laura Stewart

    I’m glad you brought up Young Adult. It is Jason Reitman’s best film to date. Charlize Theron should be nominated, and it could be argued, the frontrunner for the Oscar. It was a better performance than Viola Davis or Meryl Streep.

    Young Adult, to me, was a cautionary tale for young, single women. Mavis was extremely solipsistic and her narcissism made her repulsive towards the small town folks. I did not sympathize with her character, but rather pitied her. I know and have dated women who acted similar to Theron’s character. I believe that is why it resonates with many people, but isn’t given a whole lot of attention because it disassembles many feminized social conventions.

    Even though Mavis is fictional, it is the logical conclusion of the insidious aspects of Feminist ideology. Mavis had it all (career wise), but was a wreck socially. It was a great character study. I don’t understand why Reitman got all these accolades for Up in the Air (which was really good), but Young Adult has only been awarded with BEST ACTRESS nominations. Needless to say, it was way better than Juno. Diablo Cody has really redeemed herself with this story. I love that Cody and Reitman had the guts to create this film.

  20. unlikelyhood
    December 25, 2011

    I like this article, I like Mac’s point, I even agree with Laura and Sam that Young Adult was an interesting deconstruction.

    The funny thing is that making a dichotomy of sentimentality and snark is kind of a fallacy, sorta like dividing sci-fi into utopia and dystopia. Most good sci-fi artfully blends both. Most current films somewhat less artfully blend sentimentality and snark. Maybe they don’t all end in a freeze-frame of Oskar swinging upward to the sun (and not falling, as his dad had in so many ways), but every film advertised on this page has its own kind of life-recovering gloss. We know Fincher knows the dark side, and that’s one reason we love him (and forgive Benjamin Button – sort of), but the truth is, these online fanboys would barely know the opposite of sentimentality if it hit them. Go back to The French Connection, A Clockwork Orange, High Plains Drifter, Godfather II…all probably darker than anything the Coens have ever done. They say the new Drive is 1970s, but that repeated use of that 1980sy song brought it more of a lump in its throat than the real nihilist cinema. Anyway…Sasha’s right that we’re in limbo. The pertinacity of the blockbuster model is a boon and a curse. Yet…there’s something fun these days about seeing people slip little innovations under the sentimental gates.

  21. Joao Mattos
    December 25, 2011

    Saw it today, love every single moment. Thank, Cameron Crowe for making my Christmas end of the afternoon/beginig of the night, the coolest in a lot, a lot of years. Matt Damon close-up while watching his little girl playing with the animals, and making the decision of buying the zoo, had the effect on me of pop culture-feel-good movies version of the close-ups of Maria Falconetti on Dreyer’s “Passion of Joan of Arc”. Crowe is a genius of the most simple (and also complex) emotions. His films are not just “cute”; the sincerity and strenght that he uses in his art, give to these work a deep and profound meaning, that a lot of intellectual art don’t have.

  22. Emma
    December 25, 2011

    Dragon Tattoo doesnt deserve to win even one award.

    Well, maybe a Razzie for best hollywood ripoff of a brilliant film.

    People dont like it because its Finchers worst film and because Noomi Rapace blew Rooney mara away.

  23. Janusz
    December 25, 2011

    [deleted - someone who is not welcome at AD - banning IP]

  24. JFK
    December 26, 2011

    “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.”

    Sasha, I believe you’ve touched upon something very important and to me, equally disturbing here. While I agree with this statement, I found it odd coming from you, considering your undying love for The Social Network–a film that I feel gives a pass to people in our society who run from emotion so much so that they resort to conversing through a machine, rather than an in-person or (gasp!) phone conversation. The film heralds the dumbing down of emotion in our society and the more it is supported, the more this will continue (not to mention the unabashed misogyny displayed by Sorkin).

    But I digress, if they don’t relate to it, they don’t like it, is exactly the thought running through movie producers heads: We must make something they relate to, so they like it. And so, presto-change-o, enter The Social Network, enter unoriginal screenplays, enter sequels and prequels of poorly constructed stories of one dimensional characters, of dumb societies on screen with the hope of dumbing down real life.

  25. May 13, 2014

    C’est infiniment de la joie de vous lire

  26. May 16, 2014

    Мagnifique article, j’en discuterai ce soir avec certains de mes collègues

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