This is a two-month-old article that’s worth the read: Sean B. Hood, one of the screenwriters for last summer’s Conan the Barbarian, talks pretty candidly about what it’s like to watch a movie you’ve worked on flop at the box office. Specifically, Hood compares it to working on a political race:
The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls”are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.
No one who has spent much time reading about America’s college campuses (campi?) will be surprised to learn that an institution has banned the singing or playing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” before sporting contests.
Who was behind it? The anti-American crowd? The Marxists? The hippies? The greens? Cornel West?
Try the Mennonites: Goshen College in Indiana, the school which banned the tune, is a Mennonite school with the motto “Healing the World, Peace by Peace.” The rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air are too violent.
The anthem is being replaced at Goshen sporting events by “America the Beautiful,” so we can assume this isn’t really a commentary on the nation we all call home being a haven for imperialist capitalist pigs. Part of what makes America beautiful is that each person has the right to express their patriotism as they see fit. If the students and administrators at Goshen don’t want to play the national anthem before their Division 8 field hockey games, that’s fine. Those of us who have never donated to or attended Goshen have no right to tell them otherwise.
On the other hand, as an educational institution, so one would hope Goshen’s choice is educated. And the idea that the anthem is a violent song is a bit misguided.
Of course, the “Star-Spangled Banner” does use military imagery, because it was famously written during the War of 1812 as a poem by Francis Scott Key – specifically, during the bombardment of Baltimore. That was a fight that was brought to American shores by then-mortal foe England; we were on defense for that one.
Though set during a battle scene, the theme of the poem – especially the part used for the national anthem – is perseverance through difficulty. Turbulence and war may come, Key writes (much more eloquently), but American ideals of freedom and peace endure.
Delve a little further into the story behind the poem, and it becomes even more apparent that it is hardly a call to arms. Remember that Key saw the flag over Fort McHenry from a British ship; he was aboard on a peaceful mission to argue for the release of a popular Maryland doctor. To make his case, Key presented letters from British soldiers lauding the care they received from American doctors (and this was before the current mess that passes for a British health care system). The British acquiesced, but held Key and the doctor on the prison ship because the bombing of Baltimore was about to begin; they didn’t want to release a prisoner only to blow them up minutes later. In the midst of war, both Key and the British officers demonstrated some level of civility and mutual respect.
The fact most worth noting is that the folks America was fighting in the background of Key’s poem, the British, are our closest allies today. Despite fighting two wars within 30 years, Americans and Britons are fast friends. (Heck, we can’t even launch a television show without swiping the concept from them, and they have, what, four channels?)
So in an educated historical context, the “Star Spangled Banner” is a song about perseverance through adversity and, after your business on the battlefield is over, making peace with your enemies.
Hey, that sounds like a pretty good song to play before an amateur sporting contest.
Scathing review notwithstanding, the filmmakers deserve plaudits for the ambitious attempt. The movie might have been a swing-and-miss, but you have to hand it to John Aglialaro, who ponied up the cash to get the picture made, and the team who put the thing together quickly.
The truth is that Atlas Shrugged falls into the trap so many attempts at “conservative entertainment” fall into. It is reminiscent of 2004-2005, when several documentarians from the center-right grabbed a camera to answer left-wing movies like Supersize Me and Farenheit 9/11. Just about anyone who put something mildly amusing on videotape was labeled “the conservative Michael Moore.” In the years since, others have followed in various media. Fox News Channel’s “1/2 Hour News Hour” was supposed to be the conservative answer to the Daily Show. Websites spoofing the news as a conservative answer to the Onion spring up every now and then.
Being “the conservative version of [INSERT ANYTHING HERE]” is pretty much an epitaph, defining a project by its political views rather than its quality. And unfortunately, that’s what happened to Atlas Shrugged.
This is, however, a teachable moment for those on the center-right who want to entertain people with a good message.
1. Be entertaining first.
A major problem with Atlas Shrugged (the movie) was that its commitment to libertarian philosophy led to an unhealthy reliance on the book. Plot points and even dialog were almost directly lifted from Ayn Rand’s text. The result was muddled, outdated, and difficult to follow with characters and characterizations that were difficult for audiences to identify with. With a plot that’s hard to follow and characters who are difficult to warm up to, philosophy becomes the most recognizable element of the film.
2. Give the people someone to identify with.
Speaking of characters, another common mistake of politically tainted entertainment is the lack of attention paid to character development.
Not to continue picking on Atlas Shrugged, but business moguls do not fall into the “warm fuzz” category. That problem isn’t as pronounced in the book, which gives fuller portraits of the characters and allows the readers a peek into their thoughts. In the movie, the titans of industry are simply business executives who happen to be in the story. With the financial problems of 2007-2009 still close in the rear view mirror, that does not make for especially sympathetic characters. (Sure, there are many reasons it’s easier to create compelling characters in a book – dialog doesn’t have to be quite as sharp, and the body language of the actors isn’t as important. But if you take on the task of producing visual media, accounting for that goes with the territory.)
3. Have respect for your audience.
The show goes on because of the folks in the seats. Politically-motivated entertainers who use the stage as a pulpit to advance messages that are important to them may do so at the expense of what’s important to the audience.
That isn’t a problem for those tuning into overtly political entertainment, where strong views are expected – for instance, dialing up Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. The people tuning into those types of shows are doing so because they want to hear the entertainer’s views. But the audiences in most movie theaters (regardless of the individual audience members’ personal philosophies) are going for something completely different. Ditto for the family that sits down to watch a sitcom together. (Do people even actually do that anymore?)
In that respect, there’s a sort of arrogance and rudeness in coming to the stage to push a message; it prioritizes the entertainer’s goals over the audience’s. Unless you’re Don Rickles, nothing turns off a crowd faster than disrespect. A little subtlety goes a long way.
The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged. The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago. So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration. I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious. Here’s the trailer:
The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text. That’s probably a bad idea. Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).
And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business. When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that. More troubling is the promotional strategy. The Tax Day release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work. If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages. It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.
All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story. Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.
There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls. Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out. The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.
In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work. What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility? Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists. That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages. After all, who wants to root for a billionaire? (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office. Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette. Don’t you dare.)
With a relatively low $10 million production cost, the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably. Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses. Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.
The Onion debuts two cable television programs this month. The fake newspaper turned fake internet news site presents a unique and specific genre of comedy – the obviously false presented as seriously real. It’s similar but a bit different from slapstick comedies like Airplane! or Spaceballs. It’s closer to Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update as delivered by the more deadpan performers, like Kevin Nealon in the early 1990s. The 1970s spoof talk show Fernwood 2 Night and the long-forgotten short-lived Nick at Night television review series On the Television may be the best examples, even if short-lived. Because the audience is in on the joke but the performers are apparently not, it depends as much on performance as it does on clever writing.
Since this type of humor is so specific, it’s unsurprising that the Onion’s television ancestors met with limited success. What has given the Onion its staying power?
The Onion – which started as a small, regionally distributed newspaper in 1988 – became an early example of the internet’s power of viral distribution. It may be difficult for a network television show to find the audience it needs to build a niche following; the Onion’s following grew over time as its stories were forwarded by email. When the Onion’s television shows air this month, they will have already recruited their niche audience online over approximately 15 years.
There’s one final layer to peel back, and that’s the Onion’s business model based on generating large amounts of free, high quality content. The term “viral growth” is overused, but is applicable to the Onion’s rise through virtual word-of-mouth. The content brought traffic, and the traffic brought money – both in terms of advertising, book deals, and now television shows. None of it would have worked without something that was worth sending in an email to a friend. Funny always came first – and the money followed. Other small, regionally distributed newspapers who are struggling may want to take note.
Time Magazine ignited some controversy this month by naming Mark Zuckerberg their Person of the Year. Zuckerberg deserved the award, said Time, for “connecting more than half a billion people and mapping the social relations among them, for creating a new system of exchanging information and for changing how we live our lives.”
Indeed, Zuckerberg did all that – but he arguably did so in 2003, when he invented Facebook in his Harvard dorm room. So why is he the person of the year seven years after actually making this contribution to humanity? Or did Time discover Facebook only weeks after their grandmother, as “Julian Assange” suggested?
There are actually two questions here, so there are naturally two answers. Question 1 is why Time gave Zuckerberg the award this year; and Question 2 is why 2010 is The Year of Facebook.
Culturally speaking, the last half of 2010 is a perfect storm of Facebook hype. The Social Network was a big hit and created some preliminary Oscar buzz. The next time you watch live TV, watch how many commercials end with URLs for a Facebook page. And Zuckerberg scored headlines with his pledge to donate half his fortune to charity and $100 million to Brick City, NJ. The success of social gaming in 2010 is linked directly to those games using Facebook as a platform for popularity – even non-gamers have seen their friends’ Farmville, Cityville, or Mafia Wars updates pop up in their own news feeds.
In short, Facebook is everywhere in a way it hasn’t been in years past. But why is 2010 REALLY the Year of Facebook? It turns out, there are some numbers to back it up.
Facebook’s traffic numbers surpassed Google’s in 2010. That indicates a huge difference in how people are consuming information – instead of searching the internet and relying on Google’s algorithms to tell them what’s important, they are relying more and more on friends (a point I made yesterday in a post on Pundit League). Trusting friends is something people are most likely predisposed to do; Facebook makes it easier to do that.
More important, Facebook continues to report increases in ad revenue. It’s one thing for a website to have a good and popular idea; it’s quite another for a website to make money. That Facebook has proved it could do the latter is no small feat and guarantees solvency for the foreseeable future.
So 2010 was more than just the year when America collectively noticed Facebook; it was the year when Facebook set down stakes as a permanent entity that gave legitimacy to its foothold in the public consciousness and culture.
And for that, Mark Zuckerberg really is the Person of This Year
The headline, “Winkler honored by AARP” seems to bring on so many jokes (because really, how depressing that the Fonz is being honored by AARP?).
It time to replace the popular catchphrase “Aaaay” with “Heh? Speak louder?”
It’s a good thing his office is in the bathroom.
Hope Fonzie didn’t break his hip when he jumped the shark.
Then I read the article, and it turns out I was wr… I was wr… well, you get the picture. Henry Winkler has actually been an advocate for stroke victims. And, much like the Fonz, he doesn’t go looking for handouts:
[U]nlike most celebrity visitors, he won’t be seeking any help from Capitol Hill. In fact, he doesn’t think he needs any.
“At the moment, you don’t need the government,” Winkler told POLITICO. “They’ve got their problems that they need to deal with. What we need is awareness – just person to person. Like playing Telephone, you just pass it on. … I am trying to pass it on, and it is really worthwhile to me.”
No word on whether a quick smack with the heel of Winkler’s fist to the annual appropriations bill could create a balanced budget (like when he ended segregation), but at least he’s doing his part.
The first full-length trailer for The Social Network is up, appropriately enough, on YouTube:
There’s no doubt that the inception of Facebook has been a significant development in internet consumption; and it’s one of the most interesting business stories out there. But after a decade of startups promising to redefine how we use the internet, the “this is going to change everything” rhetoric is a little tired.
So from this trailer, this movie could be any – or all – of the following:
- Deeply fascinating
- A trite waste of time
- Mildly entertaining
- Creepy (as underscored by the cover of Radiohead’s Creep that the trailer is set to)
- A way to spend two hours ostensibly with people while paradoxically not interacting with anyone or anything except a glowing screen
Sounds like the perfect movie about Facebook.
Weigel was a target for this because of his coverage of Congressman Bob Etheridge’s reaction to a couple political paparazzi. (And incidentally, Weigel was right – Etheridge does look like he’s hugging the camera guy.) The reaction that he went easy on Etheridge led to his explosion on the list, which snowballed into an even bigger deal, and led to his resignation. Both his situation and Etheridge’s are part of a bigger trend in DC media.
The last few years have seen the launch of several DC gossip blogs and columns. Instead of tracking the latest developments on pending legislation (as, say, an MLB gossip blog might cover trade rumors) they cover such matters of national import as the dressing habits and sometime stupidity of summer interns. It’s not altogether bad, as it’s often entertaining; But it’s a noticeable trend.
It would be easy to blame this trend on media saturation, but that would be an oversimplification. This is an environment built on purpose by politicians and their communications professionals. From state dinners to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, events which were once matters of course are increasingly staged as red carpet galas. (This year, Politico likened the White House Correspondents’ dinner to the Oscars.) Celebrities are routinely invited to testify before Congress as experts.
At the same time, much like Hollywood, Washington has created supporting industries around its main business, governing. Just as movie makers need agents, consultants, special effects companies, costume designers, and other supporting industries, politicians need… well, agents, consultants, special effects companies, and costume designers. With a community built around a central function, there’s bound to be an esprit de corps that binds people together even more than partisan leanings.
The casualties in this are, of course, old school folks like Etheridge and Weigel. However, it’s important to note that their failures to adapt are for somewhat different reasons. Etheridge isn’t used to have to answer questions directly; while Weigel is likely accustomed to the direct, personal questioning that is often a casualty of gossip blog culture.