Movies and television are mediums through which writers and filmmakers can express their thoughts and creativity. Like any other art form, many artists enter the field with the hope of telling compelling stories that will make us feel a variety of different emotions: happiness, sadness, fear, excitement, and so on. Sometimes they take place in settings that we can relate to, while other times they immerse us in fantastical worlds where are imaginations can run wild.
Over the years, the demand for this kind of storytelling has exploded into a massive industry worth millions of dollars. At first glance, the growth in the industry is beneficial in the way that it meets our demands as consumers. However, more is not always better; to quote a very common phrase I’d rather have “quality over quantity.”
A few months ago, I remember going over to my cousin’s to watch a film called “Paprika”. Up until that viewing, I didn’t even know it existed. I’m sure everyone has watched a movie of TV show that completely draws you into the world created; this was one of those films.
Why am I mentioning this? Well, now-a-days I find it incredibly hard to find amazing films or TV shows that leave a lasting impression on me in the vast ocean of the entertainment industry. Have we simply hit a wall in our abilities to be creative or has the “mass production” of films influenced a change in both our tastes and the reason why films are made? My money is on the latter of the two.
I’m sure that part of the reason why I loved Paprika was because we as humans are innately intrigued by things that diverge from the normative in our culture. Just as people in North America find Japan strange and interesting because their culture is so different, people in Japan find American culture to be very interesting.
In a way, we could call it culture shock. While one is not physically moving to or visiting another country, we are immersed in that country’s culture for the length of the TV episode or movie. In that sense, I would consider myself as reaching one of the higher stages of culture shock soley in terms of anime shows and movies; I have watched enough that I know what to expect. I’ll cover more on culture shock and what not in next week’s post.
Now, even though our two cultures our both different, the respective entertainment industries are similar in how they’re structured. Both societies are structured around these arbitrary pieces of metal and paper that we carry around in our pockets or bags. This is capitalist society; a place where mass industries are formed with the purpose of making money.
“Mass” is the key word here. It seems that films in the eyes of companies are seen as products, not art. Like any other product, companies want to reach as many people as they can while also making as much money as they can.
There are two options they can chose from:
- Take the risk and spend time on creating new innovative films that take more time to create and may not appeal to everyone, or
- Create twice as many films of average or lower quality that employ the same layout, character types, etc. that have proven to be successful?
If you consider things from a purely rational standpoint, the choice is clear. Humans are comfortable with things they are familiar with, so why change something that already works? Creating an innovative work isn’t worth the risk when there is a much safer option that still produces a lot of cash flow.
The cycle of copying and repeating has always been present in art, but with mass industry it occurs at a greater rate than normal. As Lawrence Lessig points out in his book Free Culture:
This “borrowing” was nothing unique, either for Disney or for the industry. Disney was always parroting the feature-length mainstream films of his day. So did many others. Early cartoons are filled with knockoffs—slight variations on winning themes; retellings of ancient stories. The key to success was the brilliance of the differences. With Disney, it was sound that gave his animation its spark. Later, it was the quality of his work relative to the production-line cartoons with which he competed. Yet these additions were built upon a base that was borrowed. Disney added to the work of others before him, creating something new out of something just barely old. 
(There was a great video on this that I saw but I can’t find it for the life of me)
Films and shows that borrow common plot lines, character types and settings can be quite enjoyable, but when the market is flooded with ones that follow the same structure, it is somewhat difficult for them to be memorable. Arguably, shows and movies that take the most well traveled route will never interest us as something that diverges from the norm. Most of the time, they are memorable for a month or two at best.
The question of course is, “How do you sell something that is essentially the same as the hundreds of other movies created?” Well, with certain ploys of course. Take a look at any movie trailer and the way it’s structured; what do they chose to highlight? They choose some of the most best points of the film, make sure to show the furthest extent of the special effects, and of course often feature a well-known actor.
Companies often bet on the chance that we’ll see a film because of a famous celebrity of amazing visual effects; and you know what, unfortunately they’re right. We buy right into these ploys, and as long as we continue to do so, things won’t change. For example, from what I can remember, I think most people that I knew saw Avatar (the one directed by James Cameron, not Avatar the Last Airbender) because of the special effects. I’ll admit that the only reason I went to see it was because I thought the Sampsons looked like the UH-144 Falcons from Halo.
The positive thing that results from the flooded market is that the true gems really shine. When we discover a TV show or movie that truly enthralls us, we are able to appreciate it that much more.
Well, that’s my opinion on the issue. I’m sure many of you have different views, so feel free to share them in the comments and tell me if you think there has been a change in the quality of what we watch. I’m planning on making this a weekly series of posts where I share my thoughts on an topic. If you have any suggestions on what you’d like to hear me talk about, you can also share them in the comments.
Anyways, have an awesome rest of the day wherever you are!
Lessig, Lawrence. (2005). Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity. Penguin Books.