Anything Goes : The Supply and Demand of Culture by Stephen Mitchell

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Stephen Mitchell

The Supply and Demand of Culture

The American Heritage Dictionary defines culture as: The totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions, and all other products of human work and thought. This is a very depressing thought, if I may say so. I grew up in a time when films were made by studios whose chiefs were from the Old Country and were dead-set on demonstrating by way of their product that they were of an elevated class--that they had class. These studios produced stars like William Powell, Clark Gable, Gregory Peck, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth and Ava Gardner to name a few in no particular order. Some of the best roles for women were created during their reign. There is no equivalent of Bette Davis or Katherine Hepburn in the iconography of today's Hollywood. Has anyone filled Cary Grant's shoes in the movies or in our culture? Charm and stature have gone by the boards as valuable commodities, it would appear. Having myself run a "movie studio" in the form of a repertory company for film and television with an average of a hundred actors, writers and directors in the organization at any given moment from about 1980 until 2001, I feel I understand the process of making movies. I know, for example, that one can choose to create a demand or supply a demand. The latter is perhaps the easier approach but it leads us to the current state of affairs--a dwindling spiral absent intellectual discourse and inspiration in the culture and movies and television shows that do all they can to make ignorance and coarseness acceptable and even laudable. In the past, movies were aimed at adults. They were the dominant age group and thus the primary clientele at the box office. More recently, the age of the clientele has shifted and fourteen to eighteen year-olds are the prime audience. This explains why two films dealing with the same subject but made to suit a differing clientele are so at odds with one another. To wit: Tora! Tora! Tora! and Pearl Harbor. One begins to realize that culture--whether in the movies, architecture, painting, dance or music--is a factor of what one can sell in a commercial transaction. It was ever thus, I suspect. Therefore, something other than commercialism has had an impact on what I see as the decline of our culture. I think I know what it might be. I believe that the culprit is the bell curve used in the educational system also known as grading on the curve which, according to Wikipedia, is designed to yield a pre-determined distribution of grades among the students in a class. Let us consider that for a moment. The system has designed a method of ensuring that the bulk of subject understanding on the part of students will be at the level of seventy percent. Social engineers intent on returning us to the Dark Ages could do worse than adopting the bell curve. As an aside, when was the last time you heard someone--a college graduate particularly--use the subjunctive case properly? When was the last time anyone had to learn a dance step? How does one appreciate Mozart, Neutra, Hemingway, Picasso, Matisse, Billy Wilder, Cole Porter, Django Reinhardt or Miles Davis at a comprehension rate of seventy percent? Inadvertently, we have created a demand from that bulk of people in the middle of the pre-determined distribution of grades for material that is less nuanced, more elemental and easier to grasp or, in the extreme, requires no understanding. For commercial reasons, the demand is being supplied. I prefer that we begin to create a demand for more exacting standards of excellence in all areas of our culture. In my film school, we didn't grade on the curve. A student moved to Lesson Two only after understanding and mastering Lesson One. We could educate rather than process students. Would taking this approach mean that some would have a longer stay in the academic world than others? Yes, it would. It would also mean, I believe, that they would have a more fulfilling experience with the lives they lead subsequently in the real world and would imbue our culture with a demand for better, more nuanced offerings in thought, music, politics and every other facet of the thing we refer to as culture. * * *

D Marcus

I love your rose colored glasses look at the history of the studios. The studio heads were so intent on aiming at the more prurient interest of the general public that the government was close to applying censorship. So the Motion Picture Code (Hays/Breen) was put in place to self-regulate. They didn't do it because they wanted to elevate anything – for 34 years the studio heads self-censored so the government wouldn't. In the 1920's and 30's legislators in more than half the states were introducing movie censorship bills. Americans of the 1930's. 40's and 50's got these “elevated” films because of religious and political pressure. Movies were aimed at adults because the vast majority of the audience were adults. Today there are still movies aimed at adults. But fewer and fewer adults go to the movies so as those movies make less and less money. I understand your point. More exacting standards in filmmaking is a wonderful goal. I'm appreciative of the movies that DO get made by filmmaker who have those goals. It would be wonderful if “kids these days” would flock to them in huge numbers because adults do not. Great post Stephen

LindaAnn Loschiavo

@ Stephen Mitchell -- last week I saw "The Imitation Game" at a critics screening. Based on the true story of British WW2 code breaker Alan Turing, this film has OSCAR winner all over it. It is an intriguing drama made by adults for adults. It will open soon on the West Coast. When you see it, I think you will agree that this is filmmaking at its best, focused on CHARACTER and STORY (as defined by Robert McKee), not on special effects, car wrecks, sensation, nor flim-flam.

Stephen Mitchell

I think it is a given that films are made by the studios--the old and the new--to make money but beyond that major consideration, all the nuances start to creep in. Some terrific movies are being made today and as LindaAnn points out, The Imitation Game is a great example. I had the pleasure of seeing it last week. I think one of the best films made in modern times was Michael Clayton which demonstrated an exceptional level of excellence in all departments. Peter Corey is correct about subjunctives relating to verbs. I wasn't to learn about use of the subjunctive until I tripped over it while picking up French and Italian and wondered why I hadn't heard of it in English, if you can imagine. It seems that while teenagers have taken over at the box office and adults have gravitated to premium cable and DVD, it can still be seen that, given the right content and message, any particular demographic can be brought out to theaters to see a film. The first time I was consciously aware of this was when I noticed lines around the block on consecutive days to see a particular film. The men in line were of no particular description but the women all seemed to be of a certain age, affluent and attractive much like the star of the movie. Furthermore, there were significantly more women in line than men. What was the movie? Unfaithful with Diane Lane and Richard Gere directed by Adrian Lyne. When the multiplex theater concept was introduced, it was my hope that it would open the door to a greater variety of film product reaching the big screen instead of congesting theaters with Shrek sequels and the like on multiple screens. It was not to be but, thankfully, films like The Hurt Locker, The Imitation Game and 12 Years a Slave will find a place.

D Marcus

When the multiplex was introduced several chains said more screens would open the possibilities for smaller films. That lasted, maybe, a three months in some big cities - less in smaller ones. Once again paying employees and the rent and overhead won the day. Showing "the-big-hit" in four theaters brought in more money than showing it in three and showing a film that demonstrated an exceptional level of excellence in all departments on one. You are correct, given the right content and message, any particular demographic can be brought out to theaters to see a film. But in very small numbers. The people interested, those in that particular demographic, wait for it to be available for home viewing where they pay less. You mention the "big" films; those with a huge marketing budget. But fortunately there are many, many small films that demonstrated an exceptional level of excellence in all departments but with not enough money to advertise big do get made. And they find an audience; small but devoted. It would be nice if things were different, wouldn't it?

LindaAnn Loschiavo

After reading these sad comments about the multi-plex, I must kiss the ground I walk on -- -- New York, New York. Here in The Big Apple, we have IFC Film Forum, The Quad (West 13th St.), Landmark Sunshine Cinema (East Houston St.), Film Forum (West Houston St.), MOMA (53rd St.), and Angelika (Houston St.) -- to name a few -- ---- and all of them show the highest quality for the true cineastes out there. New York, New York -- it's a wonderful town.

Stephen Mitchell

The idea of big film earnings making it possible for smaller films to be made is an attractive one but I fear it has something in common with the 'trickle-down' economic model but you may be right. My friend Robert Lecky, who helped get Mel Simon into the movie business, investing in and producing a series of very interesting, off-mainstream films including When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder? and The Stuntman told me that they had put money into Porky's, so who knows? A major influence on exhibitors has been the way films have been distributed with studios offering films in bundles on a take-it-or-leave it basis the way De Beers offers diamonds to its sightholders. Add to this the fact that exhibitors report making their profits at the concession stands and only breaking even on the films completes the picture. When Addiction Incorporated, on which I was a co-producer, premiered in New York, I was pleased to see Henri-Georges Clouzo's The Wages of Fear (Le salaire de la peur), Cyril Tuschi's Khodorkovsky and Andrzej Żuławski's Possession sharing the marquee. I would gladly have spent the weekend in that theater complex.

Stephen Mitchell

Thank you. Peter. I see we both view 'trickle-down' askance. Before reading your post, I had just gotten off of a three-way Skype call between me, a producer in Italy and a producer in the USA regarding funding of a film we are producing together. As it happens, it is exactly the sort of film we are posting about. You could liken it in mood and feel (though not in story) to a contemporary version of Dino Risi's Il Sorpasso of 1962. The money is coming from a mosaic of funding sources--Greek, Brazilian, US, French and Italian--but none sourced from the proceeds of large budget film revenues. Some are below-the-line funders in the individual countries involved, another is an above-the-line funder and supplemental funding is coming from brand alliances. This last category and the activities in France are my domain. The viewpoints I express in my posts all come from personal experience and I try not to rely on opinion or hearsay especially when they run counter to what I have seen first-hand. It could be said that my methods are unorthodox--some might say innovative or inventive--but they are formed by the experience of succeeding and failing in the enterprise and those actions which I see my contemporaries doing with successful results.

Stephen Mitchell

We believe differently but no harm done.

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