I haven’t seen The Help; I keep meaning to, but I also keep meaning to get my shoes shined and my receipts filed according to month, and I haven’t done those either. The Help strikes me, a male entering my sixth decade, as a movie to be seen more out of duty than out of desire, and I understand from the new book on willpower by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister that I make too many decisions during the day and I use up all my available glucose making those decisions and so doing my duty relative to The Help has proved beyond me.
So blame the glucose is what I’m saying.
Nor have I read the bestselling novel on which it is based, because I am not in a book club. And I gather that unless you are in a book club, it is against the law in 26 states to read The Help, because it is mandatory that you share the experience with other people (really, women, but the law forbids specific gender discrimination) over guacamole and mojitos and a very large common salad with a low-fat vinaigrette—kind of like how Jewish law forbids you from praying unless you are one of ten men gathered at a set time for a set service.
However, I’m not surprised that The Help is a major hit, just as I was not shocked that Bridesmaids, the uproarious comedy released at the beginning of the summer, will be the most profitable film of the year. Movies like these are the kind of fare that made the cinema the most popular art form for most of the 20th century around the world—stories about the lives of ordinary people to whom the moviegoer feels a real commonality, albeit told in a highly glamorized or stylized form.
The fact that The Help and Bridesmaids are both films that appeal primarily or only to women proves the case even more pointedly. They were made with relatively modest budgets and marketed cannily to an audience that is looking for entertaining fare of this sort. They survived and thrived in the marketplace because people who saw them told other people to go see them, and those people told other people in turn. The same is true of the films the actor-writer-director Tyler Perry makes for primarily black audiences. It proved true even for the perennial box-office bum Woody Allen, whose Midnight in Paris got literate people over the age of 60 into the movie theater for the first time in ages to thrill to its exhaustingly wan depiction of Hemingway’s moveable feast.
This is how the movie business used to work in America, and still does work for the most part in movie-addled countries across the globe like India. Movies were made for audiences of all kinds—rural and urban, men and women, educated and lowbrow, the very young and the rapidly aging. Men got westerns and war movies; females got musicals and tearjerkers; urbanites got literary adaptations; rural audiences got broad comedies. It was assumed that if costs were kept in line and the movies featured performers audiences liked to see, they would make several multiples of their production and marketing costs, and would be accounted as hits. And this was long before there were ancillary markets, like television and cable or videotape or DVD, that would allow producers to sell the same product many times over.
You can see what a good business model this is; how sensible, how orderly. But today, with the exception of horror movies (which are produced with the general expectation that a well-received one will make around $60 million and is budgeted accordingly), you can count on two hands the major studio films that are made with this model in mind. As a result, the motion-picture business actually underserves the fastest-growing sectors of its audience, women with disposable income and people over the age of 45 generally, as it continues to chase younger audiences studio executives falsely believe they understand better and can control more easily with their marketing ploys.
This may seem like a market failure; why would a studio risk $200 million on an idiocy like Green Lantern, which any 15-year-old could have told you he wouldn’t want to see, rather than make eight possible Helps? The answer is that for everyone involved in the making of a $200 million movie, the cash rains down upon them like manna no matter how it does in the end. A cheaper movie may make more money for its investors, but it doesn’t do as well for the people who work in and on and around an expensive one.
The incentive structure of the business is askew. The thing individuals in Hollywood want most is to make money without risk, and they can do that more easily with junk produced wastefully than with story-driven projects made with care and modesty. And what is the end result of this process? This summer, for the fourth year in a row, attendance was lower than the year before; fewer tickets were sold in the summer of 2011 than at any time since 1997, when the national population was 267 million. This year the national population is almost 20 percent larger, at 312 million.
Ticket sales aren’t just decreasing; they’re cratering relative to the size of the population. Adult moviegoers have lost their taste for the medium because there are only a few films made every year they might actually want to see. Hollywood is destroying itself, even though the answer to its salvation is as plain as the over-the-counter salsa served with the Trader Joe’s guacamole at that book club next door where they’re all crying over The Help.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.