August 25, 2011

What's in a CinemaScore?

Every so often, an entertainment journalist rediscovers CinemaScore and declares it to be a near-perfect predictor of box office performance. For the unfamiliar, CinemaScore is a simple survey passed out to filmgoers who give the movie in question a letter grade (typically administered in the very beginning of a film's run). Recently, much fuss has been made over the fact that The Help received a coveted and rare A+ rating, and the guaranteed box office success that entails. It's a tempting analysis to make - what better indicator of a film's resonance can you find than man-on-the-street opinions?

It's true that many high-rated releases performed well and vice versa - you can't overlook the correlation. But I think for the most part, analysts aren't looking at what CinemaScore data actually measures. They're a bit too hasty in dismissing the results that don't support their hypothesis. The entertainment industry at large likes to rely on shortcuts and trends to guide their decisions, and they hear what they want to hear. It's a lot easier, for instance, to interpret the success of The Dark Knight as an audience hunger for an easily replicated "gritty feel" than to admit that a particular film had a certain alchemy that people responded to. Similarly, it's nice to be reassured that your newly released film will have a long and fruitful run. But I think they're missing the point.

First, let's look at the participants. These are paying customers that want to see the film anyway, and so much so that they're there on opening weekend - predisposed fans, essentially. I'm guessing that Justin Bieber: Never Say Never got an A not based on its objective merits, but because the audience was filled with diehard Bieber fans. Tyler Perry films always have glowing CinemaScores, because the man has a devoted empire. Most kids' movies score pretty high too, probably because they're mostly attended by kids.

So what about the failures? It's true that there aren't a whole lot - on the whole, the reviews typically hover between A- and B-. Because of that fact, a C or less is considered a kiss of death. Here's a list of some films that haven't fared with with CinemaScore: The American (D-), Rango (C+), Hanna (C+), Priest (C+), the remake of Solaris (F), The Box (F). Do you notice anything these releases have in common?

I do - these films were all either deliberately or accidentally misrepresented to audiences in their marketing campaigns. The American, which plays like a contemplative European film of the 60s, made a risky grab for its opening weekend by marketing itself as an action movie with lots of running. Rango was assumed to be a kids' movie because it's animated, but it's a bizarre spaghetti western full of grotesque characters. Hanna features a slew of elegant Oscar-nominated talent coming together for an violent action thriller. The very title of Solaris conjures up images of a space adventure, but it's really a moody melodrama that's rather coincidentally set in space. I haven't seen the other two films listed, but my understanding is that their advertising contained ambiguities that left people disappointed.

From this data, it's hard to see CinemaScore as anything other than an evaluation of expectations versus reality. I suspect that the A+ for The Help stemmed from the fact that it was based on a best-selling book, and fans of the book rushed out and received exactly what they expected and wanted. I'm not being cynical - many films receive the CinemaScore they deserve - but with this system set up as it is, I can't really fathom what else it might measure. 

The best objective measure of any film's quality would probably be to show it to a group of people in some remote tribe that was unfamiliar with it and all affiliated talent. After all, how often are our feelings toward a film just a reflection of our expectations or preexisting prejudices? Audiences were downright angry with Inception when, despite being a solid film, it failed to be the savior of a remake and sequel-filled industry. Conversely, movies that people have low expectations for often turn out to be hits.

And what about that outlying data I mentioned? Not every well-CinemaScored film is a hit - far from it. Many films garner enthusiastic responses in niche or sparse audiences and nowhere else. Akeelah and the Bee, Cinderella Man, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Lottery Ticket, Life As We Know It, Burlesque, Soul Surfer, and Monte Carlo all scored within the A range (many with a perfect A+) but failed to set the box office on fire - some didn't even make back their budgets. There's also plenty of films that scored in the B range that didn't gross a fraction of what comparable B-scoring films did (True Grit and The Next Three Days both received a B+).

Will The Help be a hit? Yes, but I'm guessing it's because it's based on a book that just about every woman in America has read. Unfortunately for studio bigwigs, there's no crystal ball - sometimes you just have to sit back and see what happens.

August 17, 2011

War of the sexes

***Friends and countrymen, I have returned! The excuse I offer to my millions of devoted fans is that I got a job at Paramount - yes, that Paramount - and have been going through a grueling training process. But I'm back, and ready to dish up more of the wit and biting insight that you all adore. Onward!***

It's no secret that the media influences (and reflects) society. Most people agree on that point, but can't reach a consensus on the what or how. The most famous argument is that movies and TV (but also video games, commercials, etc) promote and glorify violence. Conservatives complain that the media is too liberal, and vice versa. Minorities lament their poor representation, or complete lack of it. TV shows like "Glee" are accused of promoting a gay agenda. You could have endless debates on any of these points, but I'm not going to focus on any of them for the time being. Instead, I'll direct your attention to a media trend I not only find quite troubling, but very insidious and rarely addressed.

I worry that the media is driving men and women apart.

Let me back up a bit and refer to some history. In films of the late 1930s and into the 40s, men and women were quite often equals. No matter how different their backgrounds, they could typically spar, scheme, and dream on the same wavelength. Screwball comedy comes to mind as the best example of this, but film noir typically had a dame that was just as cunning and deadly as her leading man. It's no coincidence that this period in cinema coincided with WWII - women were supporting most of the homefront war effort and leading scrappy, independent lives. 

Then the war ended and, as we all know, Americans retreated into the suburbs and women retreated into the kitchen. Rosie the Riveter was dead; long live the housewife and mother. The cinema of the time reflected this change, and many romantic comedies become downright antagonistic. The plot was typically that the woman was trying to trap a man into marriage, while he was trying to trick her into sex (the films that Doris Day and Rock Hudson made together are a perfect example of this). To paraphrase the author of a great article that I unfortunately cannot find, the cinematic couples of the 30s-40s played with each other, but in the 50s they played against each other. So that brings me back to my main point: when you turn on a TV or walk into a movie theater these days, the gender dynamic is often 1950s 2.0.

This dynamic is usually played out in stereotypes that make both sexes look bad, but typically the onus is on the woman, depicting the Castrating Wife. The CW can take one of two forms: 1) a woman who makes totally unreasonable requests of her male significant other, or 2) a woman who makes totally reasonable demands, but it still portrayed as unreasonable and controlling. Having a character be the former is lazy; having her be the latter is just unfair. 

Leslie Mann's character in Knocked Up is a good example of the first type of CW - many criticized Judd Apatow for creating that type of character, but he's hardly alone in doing so. Stu's fiancee in The Hangover is so strict that he flees into the arms of a stripper. Nick's wife in Hot Tub Time Machine somehow bullies him into hyphenating his last name after their marriage (because they can't just discuss it like adults, apparently). In Grown-Ups (or the trailer, anyway - I respect myself too much to watch the movie), Kevin James looks on in helpless disgust while his wife continues to breastfeed their four-year-old son against his pleas. In The Proposal, Sandra Bullock forces Ryan Reynolds to marry her for a green card. These are not little indie movies. These are movies that made a ton of money. I also watched a couple episodes of the new ABC sitcom "Happy Endings" recently and, despite the otherwise sharp writing and younger, hipper audience, the character bio of Brad on Wikipedia is just that "he does whatever his wife says."

The other type of CW is found more frequently on TV, in both shows and commercials. The main premise of "According to Jim" was essentially that Jim Belushi hates women. Debra Barone on "Everybody Hates Raymond" looks like a jerk for trying to get Ray to help around the house. As much as I love "Scrubs," Carla would sometimes fall on this spectrum.  In the five or so minutes I saw of one episode of "Two and a Half Men," Charlie is annoyed that his girlfriend wants to do something other than have sex, so he pawns her off to his brother so they can do totally lame shit like see movies and have meaningful conversations. The CW also runs rampant in advertising (as does her counterpart, the Castrated Man), such as the Coors Light commercial where a man lies to his girlfriend about studying for the bar exam so he can go out drinking. Dockers' "Wear the Pants" campaign blames disco and salad bars for "leaving men stranded on the road between boyhood and androgyny." There was a similar commercial a couple years back (I don't remember what it was for) about reclaiming your manhood by rejecting your wife's requests to do completely reasonable things like clean your hairs out of the sink after shaving.

These are just what I can think of at the moment. How many times on screen has a man chafed at a request to do housework? How many times has a woman made it her mission to keep her man from attending guys' night out? Why do men and women seem to hate each other so much?

I want to blame the predominantly male writers. But the new NBC show "Whitney," created by comedienne Whitney Cummings, is being promoted with nuggets like "women are like emotional ninjas." So that can't be it. Plus, it hardly helps my crusade to point my finger just at men.

Is it the chicken or the egg? In real as well as reel life I wonder why men hitch themselves to women they seemingly can't stand, or the other way around. Men tell their sons things like "the woman is always right" and try to prep them for dating high-maintenance women; mothers tell their daughters that they can expect men to be infantile and need constant care (my own mother said as much). We perpetuate and enable the worst of each gender by creating conditions in which the bad apples thrive. I always joke that if men knew that women like me existed - women who don't really like girly stuff and take an uncomplicated, rational approach to life - the diva types would die out, Darwin style.

You may notice the pattern that all the examples I cited are comedies. I think another reason that these archetypes rub me the wrong way is because I think that comedy of differences doesn't really make sense in modern culture. I think comedians of all stripes have fully explored all differences between races, sexes, ages, etc. - there's nothing left to say, and in a fragmented society like the United States, why would you want to keep saying it? I'm not saying everyone has to hold hands and be super PC all the time; I love offensive humor as much as the next guy. I just feel that comedy of "isn't it silly when men do this" or "ever notice how all black people do this" is stale and played out. My favorite comedians, sitcoms, and comedic films focus on the humor in either specific individuals or the human race as a whole.

So what, you say? Well, this is a movie blog, and I'm always fighting the good fight for better content on our screens. But furthermore, despite all the real-world knowledge we acquire to the contrary, people still draw on fictional media characters on which to model their own relationships, whether it be a notion of a fairytale Disney romance or the procedure and biology of sex. Honestly, a fair share of couples in sitcoms or comedies are fundamentally mismatched and dysfunctional and are only together for comedic value. But it seems entirely plausible that single and/or younger people viewing this media mistake these relationships for healthy ones. Or perhaps commercials that side with men in saying that cleaning your hair out of the sink is too much to ask will subconsciously bolster their resistance against their wives. It's hardly the downfall of Western civilization, but I do believe that these types of signals are absorbed and digested in ways that can't be quantitatively studied. Pushing past these types of depictions might provoke not only unity, but more creativity as well.

What do you think? Have you noticed this phenomenon, or am I just overthinking it?