Why Hollywood was clueless about U.S. mood

By STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent  |  Nov. 26, 2001 at 11:54 AM
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LOS ANGELES, Nov. 26 (UPI) -- It's becoming clear that Hollywood badly misunderstood the general public's mood after Sept. 11.

You'll recall that the consensus over lunch at the Ivy was that Americans didn't want to see anything that remotely touched upon violence, war, patriotism, heroism, the inadequacy of airport baggage inspectors, or terrorists getting their just desserts.

Yet it was clear by the Friday night after the atrocities, when the called-for "candlelight vigil" memorial spontaneously mutated across the street corners of America into a patriotic war rally, that most of the public's blood was up.

Still, it took until November for the message to seep through to Hollywood.

Why was Hollywood so clueless? The truth is that although movie people think they are in the fashion business, with their finger on the pulse of what America is feeling right this instant, they aren't.

Movies take far too many years to make to reflect today's headlines. Instead, the best talents in Hollywood have a deep, often intuitive grasp of the little-changing hopes and fears inherent in human nature.

One screenwriters' agent told me that right after the attacks he received a desperate call from Jerry Bruckheimer's organization, the notorious makers of bang-bang-boom-boom action flicks, wanting to know if he had any family dramas or romantic comedies to sell them. "Twelve to 18 months from now, you are going to see a slew of mediocre romantic comedies," the agent laughed.

By now, though, the movie industry is reassessing the reasoning that lead to such curious decisions as having the much-anticipated WWII movie "Windtalkers" sit in the can until next June, a move that will cost MGM millions in interest.

"Windtalkers" is the John Woo-directed story of the growing friendship between an American Indian soldier (Adam Beach), one of the Navajo Indians who used their language to outwit Japanese codebreakers, and the white Marine (Nicholas Cage) assigned to guard him. The movie's clever tagline is "Honor Was Their Code."

What were they thinking when they pushed it back over half a year? Ever since the World War II era, when every war movie platoon featured an Italian, a Southerner, an Irishman and various other white ethnic stereotypes, Americans have loved this kind of film about how a patriotic war unites Americans of all races and creeds.

The movie industry has suddenly changed its mind again about war movies. For example, it's now giving a big push to "Behind Enemy Lines" (debuting Nov. 30), with Owen Wilson ("Shanghai Noon") as a shot-down fighter pilot chased around Bosnia like PacMan pursued by Serbs.

"Black Hawk Down," a big budget movie by top director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator") and based on a much-admired bestseller about the desperate 1993 battle fought by outnumbered Army Rangers in Somalia, was at first postponed until the end of March, 2000. Now, it's been moved up again to Christmas Day, so it can qualify for Academy Awards.

Even Arnold Schwarzenegger's "Collateral Damage" finally appears set to debut on Feb. 8, 2002. During Hollywood's post-attacks nervous breakdown, the conventional wisdom west of the Hollywood Freeway was that obviously nobody would want to see a fireman get revenge on the terrorist leader who killed his family. Obviously not.

There are several reasons why Hollywood's thinking went so far off the rails.

First, the attacks affected Hollywood people much more personally than it did most Americans. Beverly Hills and Manhattan are psychological neighbors, linked by a constant flow of daily business and pleasure travelers. Further, a very large fraction of the residents of L.A.'s Westside have relatives in New York -- those are the two biggest Jewish centers in America. While Americans in general reacted with a steely resolve to hunt down the bad guys, those who were personally impacted tended to be understandably depressed.

Second, Hollywood types don't possess a vocabulary for talking about normal American emotions like patriotism. You may recall the extremely odd promotion tour that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks undertook in 1997 for "Saving Private Ryan." They kept appearing on TV talk shows calling their film "an anti-war movie."

Of course, "Private Ryan" actually turned out to be a deeply moving tribute to America's warriors. (When broadcast on TV on Veterans Day this year, it earned the highest ratings of any theatrical movie in two years.) Spielberg's and Hanks' hearts were in the right place all along. Their artistic vision was deep and true. It's just that when even genuinely public-spirited citizens like Spielberg and Hanks opened their mouths to talk about it, all they could dredge up were the standard-issue Hollywood cultural left clichés.

Similarly, recall the entertainment industry's bizarre self-assessment of the first fundraising telethon. Neil Young squeaking out John Lennon's ode to surrender, "Imagine," was the highlight, we were told. In contrast, Tom Petty's defiant performance of "I Won't Back Down," was said to be "jingoistic" and "insensitive."

Normally, Hollywood doesn't let its cocktail party ideology get in the way of making movies that would appeal to those with feelings that are more down to earth. For a couple of months after Sept. 11, however, Hollywood seemed to actually believe its chatter.

One strange phenomenon after Sept. 11 was that Hollywood temporarily forgot its basic business model. Normally, studios don't worry about the mood of America. All it cares about are market segments, like teenage boys, which roughly correlate with hormone levels. To gross a huge $200 million, all you have to do is sell one ticket to 10 percent of the population, or two tickets to 5 percent.

Instead, after the terrorists struck, the movie honchos decided that everyone in America felt about the same. That was more true than normal, when hormones reign supreme. The only problem was that Hollywood assumed everybody felt the way it felt, which was definitely not true.

Finally, and most fundamentally, Hollywood simply is not in the business of reflecting the momentary mood of America. And the public doesn't expect it to be. Movies generally take years to make from the time the first writer comes up with the story.

The four biggest grossing movies of the year will likely end up being "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc.," "Harry Potter," and "Lord of the Rings." None of these is exactly ripped from headlines. The credits to "Monsters" lists the 49 children born to the crew during the five years the animated comedy was in production.

Consider also the biggest hit of the six weeks after the attacks, "Training Day." Sure, its box office take was small compared to the huge numbers seen since the end of Daylight Savings Time in late October, but it was the definite king of the slack season between the summer blockbusters and the late fall family films.

As a brutally violent flick about a rogue cop, "Training Day" seemed "inappropriate" for release less than a month after Sept. 11. But of course it was not in sync with the times - young screenwriter David Ayer registered his first draft of the script in 1995.

What "Training Day" did have going for it was an above average screenplay and a tremendous performance by Denzel Washington as an archetypal figure of masculine charisma - both glamorous and treacherous.

Hollywood's love affair with masculine archetypes was especially obvious in its Golden Age, when stars were expected to play the same type of role repeatedly. John Wayne was the tough man who was good on the inside. Jimmy Stewart was the good man who was tough on the inside. Cary Grant was the charming gentleman. Errol Flynn was the charming cad.

What Hollywood has always made its main stock in trade is fundamental human emotions, not political trends.

"Jaws," the 1975 movie that invented the summer blockbuster, had a veneer of trendy post-Vietnam and Watergate cynicism about authority figures, but what it was really about was the oldest of human (and maybe pre-human) feelings: the fear of getting eaten by a vicious beast.

Similarly, the biggest grosser ever, "Titanic," is based on a story that has fascinated the world since 1912, in large part because people are naturally terrified of drowning.

Huge hits in 2001 were based on such archetypal themes as cannibalism ("Hannibal"), Egypt ("The Mummy"), man-eating dinosaurs ("Jurassic Park III"), monkeys as the mirror of man ("Planet of the Apes"), war ("Pearl Harbor"), princesses ("The Princess Diaries"), and racial differences ("Rush Hour II").

The surprise hit "The Fast and the Furious" actually did tap into a hot social trend - the revival of street racing among urban youth - but it wasn't one that pundits wrote op-eds about.

Hollywood is now realizing that it was out of touch this fall. Perhaps, it will learn a little humility from the episode.

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