Tell me if this sounds familiar.
A movie is coming out next year that really sounds like fun. It’s a Hollywood blockbuster type of production. Maybe it’s some Marvel picture. Maybe it’s the next installment of Star Wars. In any case, the teasers and trailers have primed you for this event.
Then December (or July) rolls around. You see the film and it is BIG. I mean, the soundtrack rattled your fillings. The 3D graphics sent a jet engine splashing into your White Russian. It was everything you hoped for except for one thing…the story sucked. So bad in fact that when you watched it on cable a few months later, you couldn’t even finish. Then you come to find out that it set a record for tickets sold.
How the hell did so many people like it? Is the world stupid? Are you so smart? Is the world going to hell in a hand basket?
Welcome to storytelling outside the target demographic.
Every January the MPAA comes out with its Theatrical Market Statistics (PDF). It’s a press release designed to be regurgitated by the major news outlets. Maybe you recall the segments on NPR. They’re usually dull reports that have no bearing on your life at all. If you ever take a look at one of these things, you’ll find all kinds of metrics: tickets sold, attendance by race and ethnicity, top grossing films. It’s real wonky.
The key demographic in 2015 was 12–17 year olds. This is not a plot twist. It’s been that way since the late 1970’s with the blockbuster returns of Jaws and Star Wars. This demographic is why we have a summer and Christmas release schedule. Kids are out of school, stupid bored, and can’t stand to be home. Plus, they are more likely to see a film several times in the vain hope of finally having the elusive back of the theater make-out session.
Jurassic World was the top grossing film of 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens came in second, but mostly because it was released in December 2014 and split the returns over the two years. So as you can see things haven’t changed all that much. Hollywood is still selling space and scary monster movies.
Now, in 2015 I didn’t go see the dinosaur flick. I opted instead to pick up on a story I had been following since I was two years old: Star Wars. The music alone is like a spiritual doorbell. The original series “taught” me so much about hope and loss, talent and cruelty. My dad and I tried to see every film together and so I associate the film with all kinds of familiar memories and feels. The first six films came out before I was twenty-five years old and though I could tell they were fading quality, I fell for them every time.
Then I went to see the newest film. What a disappointment! Midway through, I could tell the plot points moved too quickly. The exposition was contrived. It felt like the screenwriters were just hitting their marks instead of organically taking us through motivated events. The dialogue was just sad, mostly on-the-nose kind of stuff. And instead of characters, I saw actors pulling in big paychecks with a wink and a nod. Hollywood had failed me once again.
In moment of self-righteousness, I started a Facebook fight by posting an LA Times review, adding
I am nostalgic and so I was mildly entertained. But really, it was not a good film. Any review that says so is the product of a PR firm.
and then once the flame war erupted:
The original was epic. But these later films can’t seem to escape the ironic mode. So much of it is tongue-in-cheek. Plot twists that nod to the original. So much dialogue with a wink. If it were truly epic, it would be deadly serious. And that would take courage.
Such a serious man. So so serious… What the hell was I thinking?
Here I was nostalgic for less ironic times when what was really happening was that I had fallen way, way out of the target demographic of this film.
I was under the mistaken belief that at the age of forty-X that Star Wars: The Force Awakens was for ME. But it wasn’t for me, not really. I wasn’t going to see it twice. I wasn’t going to bring my parents, brothers, sisters, and friends. I wasn’t throwing a birthday party at the theater. And I sure as hell wasn’t going to buy the toys.
So let’s go back to the report. Here is a list of the top 25 films of 2015. Only 6 had an R rating.
- Jurassic World (Universal)
- Star Wars: The Force Awakens* (Disney)
- Avengers: Age Of Ultron (Disney)
- Inside Out (Disney)
- Furious 7 (Universal)
- American Sniper** (Warner Bros.)
- Minions (Universal)
- Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, The (Lionsgate)
- Martian, The (20th Century)
- Cinderella (Disney)
- Spectre (Sony)
- Mission: Impossible Rogue Nation (Paramount)
- Pitch Perfect 2 (Universal)
- Ant-Man (Disney)
- Home (20th Century)
- Hotel Transylvania 2 (Sony)
- Fifty Shades Of Grey (Universal)
- SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out Of Water,The (Paramount)
- Straight Outta Compton (Universal)
- San Andreas (Warner Bros.)
- Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.)
- Divergent Series: Insurgent, The (Lionsgate)
- Kingsman: The Secret Service (20th Century)
- Peanuts Movie, The (20th Century)
- Spy (20th Century)
Now according to the report, this was an amazing year for Hollywood. Not only were these films hitting the target group, but they were attracting all kinds of viewers. Some of these films were heavily viewed by the 25–39 group. And more 60 year olds went to the movies in 2015 than any previous year.
But my guess is that, though these people went to the movies, they were the very same people who came to work complaining that while the visuals were astounding, the stories were silly. And no doubt they chalked it up to the usual reasons: 1) Hollywood is running out of ideas 2) The audience is significantly dumber than in previous generations 3) Corporate profits trump all artistic concerns
And all of these reasons are partly true. But the single most significant reason why the stories seem so bad is something no one wants to hear: Age matters. You are too damn old for this movie.
There I said it. But before you start getting all moody staring into your scotch and tear water, just remember: You don’t have to take this in a bad way.
Just think for a minute:
We live in a story driven culture. Comic books, children’s books, history books, novels, commercials, television shows, movies, radio shows, gossip, family drama fill our every waking minute. By the time you are 25, you have read, watched, heard, so many stories that you begin to see patterns. This is even more the case when you are 35 or 45. In all likelihood, you have seen a few masterpieces. Having enjoyed films like Apocalypse Now, or Synecdoche, NY, or Ivan’s Childhood, how could you then go on to watch The Avengers and not be filled with anything but disappointment?
The films on the list aren’t trying to be Peter Greenway flicks. They are for young people who like really simple stories packed with wild CGI action sequences. Your complaints about story holes are analogous to being insulted when you don’t get a great steak at T.G.I. Fridays. You chose poorly! Go there for the funny cocktails and the pot stickers and you WILL have a good time.
And yes, you’re old. But old isn’t worse than being young. Lots of things sucked when you were young. Remember clothing shopping? Going on dates with your parents? The taste of whiskey? Tastes change and the MPAA is in the business of predicting who will like what, when. No they aren’t right all the time, but they aren’t going to change anytime soon. Go see the films on next year’s list if you want, but set your expectations accordingly. And whatever you do, if you are older than 25, don’t complain.
Go find the good stuff. It’s out there. And they need your money.
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- Wrestling with the Angel
- Who gets to tell the story?
- Regarding Election Day
- The Future of Storytelling Festival (Part I)
- Worth Reading: Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart
- Saul Zaentz Incubator Here I Come
- If “Celebrate” Isn’t Part of the Plan, then the Project has Failed.
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