Movies just don’t matter

Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC Annenberg, is the author of "Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality."

Now is the summer of Hollywood’s discontent. There are plenty of theories about why box office and attendance are down, and most have an element of truth. But the real reason may be a culturally momentous change. Over the last 10 years or so, being entertained has been supplanted by a seemingly more gratifying exercise: being in the know.

Knowingness: An article on entertainment and celebrity buzz in Current on July 31 said Eminem has sold 10 million CDs. He has sold nearly 29 million CDs.

Movies, television and DVDs are attracting fewer patrons because people, especially young people, value being entertained less than they value knowing about entertainment and entertainers. Movies have become what director Alfred Hitchcock called a “MacGuffin” — a red herring that triggers a plot but has no other inherent value. Like MacGuffins, movies have little inherent purpose except to be talked about, written about, learned about — shared as information.

Just think: Everyone in our society knows a welter of facts about popular culture. Just about everyone reads People magazine, or supermarket tabloids, or newspaper gossip columns, or watches “Entertainment Tonight” or its knockoffs, or scours the Internet, or talks with friends about people and events of the entertainment world. Everyone knows the big movies, the hot stars, the latest celebrity snafus, even the TV ratings and movie grosses.

Fan magazines and gossip columns have been around as long as films. The modern wrinkle is that those with knowledge about entertainment now far exceed those who watch or listen to the entertainment itself. Watching a movie used to tickle viewers to want to know more about its stars. Today, knowing about the stars is an end in itself.

It’s hard to imagine any American today not knowing about the childhood traumas of Oprah Winfrey; her rocky romance with beau Stedman Graham; her cycle of dieting, ballooning and dieting; the books she reads; even the amount of money she makes. Oprah may be the most famous woman in America.

The ostensible source of all this interest is her daily, syndicated television show, which, judging by Oprah’s visibility, should be the most-watched program. In fact, Oprah’s show attracts about 8 million viewers a day, according to the latest ratings. It’s reasonable to assume that those millions of viewers are basically the same each day. That’s 8 million out of a country of nearly 300 million, or less than 3%.

Eminem has sold only 10 million CDs, and the “Today” show gets only 6 million viewers on a good day — and just about everyone knows who Eminem and Katie Couric are.

More people will read, hear or joke about Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes than will see either “War of the Worlds” or “Batman Begins.” More people will read about the romantic entanglements of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie than will see their movie, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

None of this would matter for the box office were it not that celebrities’ real-life sagas — what I call “lifies” because they combine life with the narrative appeal of movies. Lifies provide many of the same satisfactions as movies do. Once upon a time, these peccadilloes might have advertised stars’ films. Now they don’t so much advertise the movies as replace them. In the battle of competing narratives, people are likely to prefer the real-life ones with real-life consequences to the fictional ones on screen. Most movies suffer by comparison.

And because they are largely MacGuffins, movies suffer from another rivalry as well. The traditional benefits of entertainment were the pleasures of the experience. For that, you had to see the movie, read the book or hear the CD. These were — and are — powerful pleasures, powerful enough to make entertainment a multibillion-dollar industry. But as society has grown more complex and the information we can know has grown exponentially, knowingness — the idea of being in the know and of having the expertise to navigate through the haystacks of available information to find the needles — has come to provide an arguably more satisfying form of gratification. That’s why the knowingness industry, including the Internet, seems more vital than the entertainment industry. Google is the new metaphor for fulfillment.

Those who know are at the prow of culture, especially if they know trivial factoids like who might be dating whom, what obscure rock band is on the cusp of stardom or the characters on a little-watched cable TV show.

Conventional entertainments like movies face a terrible double-whammy — lifies supersede them and knowingness makes seeing them irrelevant. The one thing that moviegoing did provide was a communal experience. Some defenders of the movie theater claim that watching DVDs at home cannot provide the same bond. Maybe not, but knowingness can supply the bond. The communal experience of a theater is being replaced by the communal experience of having knowledge of it, which is why chat rooms and websites are almost certainly more popular than the movies that are chatted and blogged about.

None of this is to say that the movies won’t rebound. They’ve been written off before, and all it takes is two or three more “Revenge of the Siths” to create headlines that Hollywood is back. But given the changes in society, the long-range prospects are not promising. It might be more than a long summer for Hollywood. It might be a long decade and then some.