Saturday, April 21, 2007

WMC - The Wardrobe Malfunction Channel

If you don't like a movie, you have no one to blame but yourself. And I don't mean that what's good or bad at the movies is just a matter of taste; the fact is, you are to blame for the creation of almost any bad movie you can think of. OK, you and your neighbor who thinks that people tripping and falling down is funny, are responsible. Or maybe just him.

If you want things to improve, you will have to break his Tivo, steal the red envelopes from his mailbox, tell Nielsen that he is not really a family even though he eats like one, and cut his internet service. You might have to keep him from the watercooler at work, and maybe bind and gag him. Of course he may want to do the same thing to you, unless the two of you get together to watch PFD - The People Falling Down Channel, while enjoying the beer-ish drink that sponsors its number one show, Dancing With The Stars Bloopers.

In this cynical essay, I will talk about the creative process, and three things that inspire creative Hollywood film makers: The Neilsen Ratings, Tivo, and the Netflix member database. I will also cover the focus group, which helps creative people in Hollywood decide how to cut film in a way that's creative enough to turn a profit.

OK you say, how are Netflix, Neilsen, and Tivo inspirational? They are actually what defines creativity in the movie business.

I will start with the Nielsen Family. They're creepy and they're spooky, and no one really knows who they are. Nielsen chooses them at random from zip codes they hope reflect the demographic balance of the entire American TV audience. So you and your neighbor for whom Shadenfreude is better than regular German have an equal chance of influencing programming for a big TV network, or worse, a small one. They attach an Orwellian-device called a "Peoplemeter" to your television, and suddenly you are afraid to watch HBO's Cathouse Season 2. Since the Nielsen rating process is self-reporting, i.e. you are very aware that you are being watched, you are likely to change your viewing habits while you are a Nielsen family based on whatever predjudices or insecurities you might have.

How does a TV rating service inspire films? Since US audiences spend more time in front of the TV screen than the movie screen, measuring response to TV programming drives the production of all kinds of entertainment; and the sudden glut of movie actors accepting TV roles that started a few years ago indicates that actors who once thought TV roles were a step down from film are willing to take that risk to reach Mom, Dad, and the kids all at the same time without having to compete with animated ogres or penguins, and for free and on a school night to boot.

According to many media research firms, the number of US households with at least one TV is about 112 million, or roughly 1 TV for every 3 US residents (THEY will soon outnumber us). About 19 million, or 17% of US housholds with TVs, are connected to a DVR; Compared to the 5000, or .0004% of that audience Nielsen calls family and has been the statistically significant basis of the industry-defining rating service for years, Tivo's data is 42,500 times more reliable to a creative Hollywood person than Neilsen data. It is also dynamic rather than static; Tivo can measure the number of times you rewound and re-watched Janet Jackson's wardrobe malfunction to be sure you really saw what you thought you saw, not just what you hoped you'd seen. Nielsen would only report that you were tuned into Super Bowl XXXVIII instead of Soylent Green, a pretty safe bet for that Sunday anyway; and since sponsors' dollars are already committed at the highest level years in advance to the big game, the Peoplemeter really only tells creatives who among U2, Prince, or the Stones are better lip-synchers.

While a grad student taking a Crisis Management class, I was actually teamed with other students to defend Janet Jackson to a hypothetical but hostile press corp after the supposedly accidental malfunction, which happened two weeks before she was to release a new album. With Tivo data in hand, I might have realized that a good offense is the best defense, and suggested that Janet change her album cover to cover her even less. The "Wardrobe Malfunction" remains Tivo's most replayed moment, after overtaking the Madonna/Britney Spears kiss of 2003's MTV Video Music Awards.

Netflix has it over the other sources of inspiration for creative people in Hollywood because it is self-programming; no one has to guess what an audience will watch from choices on a time and date matrix, the audience picks its poison. I am a Neflix member, and now I wonder how I ever lived without it, and I love its interactive website. Netflix allows me to rate films online, and tells me to what degree my "friends", with whom I exchange opinions about the films we rent, agree with my ratings. This calculus of taste and demographics makes it easy for film makers to be creative; all they need to make the next blockbuster is to check the numbers and follow the recipe. Having worked with databases in my career, I know how easy it is for Netflix to search member-generated content for keywords in notes and reviews, see who has created "friend" connections (e.g. parents and their children or other parents, co-workers, siblings, and friends), find out what they like and what they tank, and where everyone's tastes intersect. The more you add to your already extensive network of electronic friends by participating in this rating and review-writing process, the more influence you have in Hollywood's creative process (and if you are a participative member of Netflix, you must be a good movie consumer with a valuable opinion). If anyone wanted to buy this data for their own sinsiter purposes, Netflix could charge a pretty penny for it, and I bet they have at least one such penny in their piggy bank already.

So if your neighbor's poor taste seems to influence more programming than your own good taste, you can fail to invite him to be a Netflix friend and try to grow your own list of like-minded friends. You can sneak into his apartment while he's out and change his Tivo to record The Discovery Channel and Masterpiece Theater, making sure his Peoplemeter is catching it all.

But he might still be invited to participate in a focus group.

When I think of focus groups, I harken back to the movie studio executives that plucked Barton Fink from Broadway because he knew "the poetry of the street." They robbed him of what he considered his most important work and forced him to churn out Wallace Beery wrestling pictures for the duration of his contract.

Have you seen films in which the ending doesn't seem to flow from the rest of the movie? Or a film adapted from a book that changes what you read, maybe more than a little? You are watching the winds of the focus group blow, forcing creative Hollywood film makers to bend.

My favorite example is John Grisham's The Firm, in which Tom Cruise plays a young lawyer who discovers that the Southern law firm from which he accepts his first job offer is a front for the mob, and decides to do somthing about it. Grisham's book ends with lawyer Mitch McDeere and wife Abee fleeing the country after exposing the firm and preventing it from concealing criminal activities and killing partners, at considerable risk to their lives. At the end of the the movie version, Tom Cruise's Mitch tells a hard-boiled FBI agent Wayne Tarrance, played by Ed Harris, that the way to get the mob is to go after its lawyers for overbilling, one-by-one; Tarrance actually seems to think this is a fine idea, though the success of this plan would depend on the mob's cooperation in turning in its own employees for charging it too much, while spending millions of FBI man hours and replacing agents like Tarrance with accountants. TomDeere and his wife then decide to move to another city, maybe Boston, to find a small but promising law firm at which Mitch can start over (and the mafia will never find him as long as he changes his name to "Bob").

To whom did this ending make any sense? Maybe the accountants in the audience? No, it was a focus group that was influenced by current events and felt anti-lawyer enough that week to press the Happy Button more often in response to the implausible ending than Grisham's. No matter that the original ending helped Grisham sell thousands of copies of The Firm; Paramount and Tom Cruise needed a winner, and couldn't risk taking the wrong side of a hot issue and angering the public, who, to be fair, were actually invited to tell the script writer what to write.

So even though you would never dream of seeing films like RV, Baby Geniuses, or Hostel, you and your friends didn't engage your Tivo, Peoplemeter, or Netflix friends enough to get better films produced; or at least, you didn't rip the remote out of the wrong people's hands in time to prevent tragedies like Battlefield Earth or Monster-in-Law.

So the bad film you just saw is really your responsiblity, and you will just have to work on making a better movie yourself. And though you don't have a budget, and only you and your friends who don't seem to have much infuence in Hollywood will be paying to see it, you can finance your future masterpiece by making one or two popular movies first. This should be easy, since you live right next door Hollywood's most influential creative consultant, your neighbor. Just look over his shoulder and past his fat head, and you too can be creative.

As a matter of fact, I've tapped my own neighbor's insights and have begun to write my own hit movie script based on his impossibly dull viewing habits so that I can move on from being a mere movie blogger to an Art Film Director. It's going to be a Wallace Beery wrestling picture that takes place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

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