If the leaders of the American entertainment establishment paid closer attention to the recent musings of the industry’s favorite philosopher, they might finally piece together a coherent explanation for Hollywood’s long, painful and puzzling box office slump. In a little-noted June 2005 conversation with a European journalist, Woody Allen demonstrated his alienation from his own country, and it is that alienation–not gum on theater seats, or high-priced tickets or a new pattern of DVD releasing–that explains the shrinking American audience for feature films. Speaking to Der Spiegel, Allen indicated his disdain for any attempt to come to grips with recent American history.
As a filmmaker, I’m not interested in 9/11 because, if you look at the big picture, the long view of things, it’s too small, history overwhelms it. The history of the world is like: he kills me, I kill him. Only with different cosmetics and different castings: so in 2001, some fanatics killed some Americans, and now some Americans are killing some Iraqis. And in my childhood, some Nazis killed Jews. And now, some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other.
Of course, it is obscene for one of the world’s most visibly Jewish entertainers to reassure a German audience that “some Nazis killed Jews” and then to compare the Holocaust to the current situation in which “some Jewish people and some Palestinians are killing each other.” He also flatters his European readers by equating the nihilistic slaughter of 9/11 with the casualties incurred in the liberation of Iraq, thereby dissociating himself from the country that gave him birth, fame, a succession of glamorous consorts and considerable wealth.
Allen’s thoroughly gloomy, Continental view of life clearly distances him from the irrepressible optimism of his native land. “But the truth of the matter is that existence in general is very very tragic, very very sad, very brutal and very unhappy”, he helpfully explained. “But there is no meaning. There is no upside.” And so there is no doubt why none of Allen’s most recent films–Melinda and Melinda (2004), Anything Else (2003), Hollywood Ending (2002) and The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001)–has made much of an impact on the U.S. box office. Ironically, in the scarcely watchable Hollywood Ending Allen plays a director who loses his vision but nonetheless completes a film that opens to a disastrous reception in the United States, but critical acclaim in…France.
For an admired auteur like Allen, no succession of preposterous public pronouncements (or tacky scandals in his personal life) could undermine his status as a demigod in Hollywood. For Melinda and Melinda, he even persuaded box office titan Will Ferrell (who regularly commands close to $20 million per picture) to work for scale. Nevertheless, the general public now views the once-beloved creator of Annie Hall as vaguely sad but mostly irrelevant–an attitude that increasingly applies to Hollywood in general.
A recent slide in movie attendance suggests a film industry crisis of major proportions, but pop culture potentates seem reluctant to confront it. In May of this year, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that fully 48 percent of American adults say they go to the movies less often than they did in 2000. For 19 consecutive weeks, including the heart of the summer 2005 blockbuster season, the motion picture industry earned less (despite higher ticket prices) than it brought in during the corresponding period the year before. Projections of ticket sales for all of 2005 indicate that the public will occupy at least 8 percent fewer seats in movie theaters this year than in 2004–an alarming performance at a time of population growth and a generally robust economy.
To explain the bad news, USA Today ran a lengthy analysis under the mournful headline, “Where have all the moviegoers gone?” Reporters Anthony Breznican and Gary Strauss quoted numerous insiders speaking optimistically about new attempts to rekindle the old romance: “The lures include providing high-tech eye candy through 3-D, digital projection and IMAX versions of movies. . . . Stadium seating, which improves views, is just now becoming standard. Other theaters are opting for screenings that serve alcohol to patrons 21 and older.” Revealingly, none of the studio honchos talked about reconnecting with the mass audience by adjusting the values conveyed by feature films, replacing the industry’s liberal posturing with a more diverse, balanced or (perish the thought) patriotic perspective. Innumerable callers to my radio show have expressed resentment at the partisanship of top directors and stars. No one has ever complained about the lack of 3-D, digital projection or alcoholic beverages at concession stands.
It’s not enough, either, to explain audience alienation with cavalier references to “mediocre movies.” Anyone who reviews films for a living can tell you that most movies have been mediocre for a long time–several decades, at least. Something changed between 2004 and 2005 to cause a sharp, sudden drop-off at the box office, and an obvious factor that entertainment insiders refuse to consider is their own activism during the 2004 election. The show business establishment embraced Senator John Kerry’s campaign with near unanimity and bashed President Bush with unprecedented ferocity. Michael Moore, whose conspiracy theories simultaneously portrayed the President as a manipulative evil genius and a childish, incompetent boob, became a hero within the industry and the most visible symbol of the Hollywood Left. As is by now well known, Jimmy Carter invited Moore into his box at a premiere showing of Fahrenheit 9/11, presumably thinking this would gain votes for Kerry. That was doubtful. Despite the best efforts of entertainer activists and their political associates, a majority of American voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush this past November. If only a small minority of those 62 million GOP voters–say, 20 percent–reacted to Hollywood’s electioneering by staying away from the local multiplex, that alone would account for the decline in ticket sales in the months immediately following the President’s re-election.
An additional element that may help explain 2005’s missing moviegoers involves another bitter controversy from 2004, this one over The Passion of the Christ. That movie earned a startling $370 million at the domestic box office and drew in religious-minded patrons who had for years shunned movies altogether. Amazingly enough, however, no major feature film in the 17 months since the release of The Passion has attempted to appeal to that energetic faith-based audience. The Walt Disney Company hopes that churchgoers will flock to the theaters this Christmas season to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the lavish new adaptation of the beloved Christian allegory by C.S. Lewis. That promised deliverance remains distant (four months is an eternity in show business time) and speculative, but if the theory proves true, it will say a great deal about Hollywood’s real problems.
The refusal to recognize ideological considerations and a “values gap” as major elements in the Hollywood’s box office collapse reflects the trendy leftism that remains the reigning faith in Tinseltown. The tendency to emphasize material solutions characterizes liberal thinking on a wide range of policy issues–from out-of-wedlock births (provide birth control devices and abortion on demand), to crime (more gun control), to poverty (more welfare), to terrorism (more anti-poverty aid). Above all else, it is this blindness to the philosophic dimensions of major challenges that renders the Hollywood Left unable to reconnect with a skeptical mass audience.
But then, it hasn’t really tried. In the months following the President’s 2004 victory, the entertainment elite made little effort to reconcile with the conservative faithful who had so outspokenly objected to the industry’s leftward tilt during the campaign. Instead, the highest profile projects of 2005 have continued the movie world’s relentless campaign of Bush-bashing.
Thus, the two most successful box office directors of all time, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, both felt a need to inject incongruous anti-Administration commentary into their sci-fi crowd-pleasers, Star Wars: Episode III–Revenge of the Sith and War of the Worlds. As for Star Wars, did Lucas honestly believe conservatives would not notice Darth Vader unmistakably echoing the rhetoric of George W. Bush? “If you?re not with me, then you’re my enemy”, declares the arch villain, to which the enlightened Obi Wan Kenobi sagely responds, “Only a Sith [an exponent of the Dark Side] deals in absolutes.”
Later, amid the summer doldrums of 2005, Spielberg unveiled his own digs at Iraq policy in his eloquent epic, War of the Worlds, about aliens slaughtering defenseless earthlings. Tim Robbins (known at least as much for his antiwar activism as for his undeniable acting accomplishments) plays a demented tough guy determined to lead resistance against the otherworldly invaders. In attempting to persuade Tom Cruise to join him, he explains that earth is “our home, not theirs”, and pointedly proclaims: “Occupations never work!”
Audiences of Hollywood cognoscenti may applaud such unexpected topicality in a cinematic adaptation of an 1898 novella, but the most striking aspect of such political attacks is their utterly gratuitous nature. Neither Revenge of the Sith nor War of the Worlds would have proven less successful or less satisfying for audiences if these unsubtle messages had been excluded. If anything, these ham-handed references to contemporary controversies only undermine the audience’s emotional involvement with the unrelated melodrama on screen.
These same Hollywood Left pieties about the war on terror also turned up in one of the year’s most conspicuous box office flops, and almost certainly contributed to its rejection by the public. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven told a mostly fictional story about the Second Crusade in the 12th century, in which the heroes represent the Rodney King can’t-we-all-just-get-along school of ecumenical relations. The movie posits the existence of a peace-loving, brotherly society known as “The League of Muslims-Christians-and-Jews” whose work for cooperation and understanding (enthusiastically supported by the noble Saladin) is tragically undermined by Christian fanatics who foment an altogether unnecessary war (hint, hint) for their own selfish reasons. Kingdom produced a public reception that was anything but heavenly, yet the sensitive, politically correct souls behind the production could comfort themselves with the knowledge that they received the enthusiastic endorsement of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Those who appreciated Kingdom of Heaven will also approve of the announced plans for the first big- budget motion picture addressing 9/11. That effort features Nicolas Cage playing real-life police officer John McLoughlin, who, while attempting to rescue victims, finds himself trapped in the wreckage of the Twin Towers. To bring this project to the screen, Paramount Pictures has selected the notorious, loony-Left conspiracist Oliver Stone as the director. Aside from a recent record of drug busts and box office disasters (the gay-themed Alexander  and his documentary paean to Fidel Castro, Comandante , come to mind), Stone’s history of anti-American statements is rich and graphic. Take, for example, his declaration to American Film magazine in 1987: “I think America has to bleed. I think the corpses have to pile up. I think American boys have to die again. Let the mothers weep and mourn.”
Tinseltown will surely continue to weep and mourn as long as its leaders anoint the likes of Oliver Stone to steer the first significant big-screen statement about the worst terrorist attack in our history. The American people aren’t stupid, and they’re not all apolitical; many (at least a third) are even self-consciously conservative in both politics and values. In the past, that conservative audience has enthusiastically embraced some of the work of Steven Spielberg (especially his superb D-Day epic, Saving Private Ryan), but it may not welcome his upcoming project, which has been publicized under the tentative title, Vengeance. Focusing on the Israeli effort to track down and kill the murderers of the martyred athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972, it initially appeared to offer a long overdue, major studio focus on the depraved and monstrous evil of Islamic terrorism. A recent New York Times report, however, suggests that Spielberg means to emphasize the “guilt” and “doubts” of the Israeli agents assigned to their deadly mission (doubts that the real-life operatives fervently deny) and to “humanize” the Palestinian terrorists. Certainly, no one on the Right (or in the center, for that matter) can feel encouraged by the decision to hire a well-known critic of Israel and the United States–the outspoken leftist playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America)–to make his motion picture debut in writing the script.
Ironically, a new attempt to address the most deeply held commitments of ordinary Americans might help the entertainment elite to create the sort of timeless artistic expressions they say they so desperately wish to contribute–which brings us back to Woody Allen’s Der Spiegel interview. The comedic master places his disinterest in 9/11 and the war on terror in the context of the higher artistic ambitions he feels called to pursue. “Yes, I’m probably more interested in eternal human feelings and conflicts”, he explained. “If I make a good film, it will always be good. The same feelings and problems will persist 5,000 years from now. Like the Greek tragedies, which still touch us today, which still work.”
Hollywood Woody, in other words, suggests that his intermittently amusing observations about Manhattan sophisticates and their adulterous self-indulgence will rank with Sophocles and Euripides in terms of permanent relevance. It’s a safer bet, however, that our successors will be more fascinated with the fateful course of our current struggle against Islamo-fascism and, perhaps, with the isolation of a once-great movie industry inexplicably unconcerned with its own survival.