Corporate Crassness In The Entertainment Industry: Is It Affecting VDO’s Projects?

I was intrigued by the following comment at the tail end of an article in Variety from an interview with VDO on how the new LOCI jobsharing arrangement is working out (and as per my predictions, according to the David Mermelstein article entitled ‘Measure Of A Man’, it’s going swimmingly for VDO, Kathryn Erbe & Chris Noth. Quips VDO:

 “It’s a nonstop juggling thing,” he admits. “You have to keep yourself happy as an actor, a father and an employee of G.E.”  [italics added for emphasis]

Now take a gander from an exerpt from Jim Emerson’s blog – Emerson is the editor at film critic Roger Ebert’s website rogerebert.com) and a pretty interesting blogger himself. Emerson writes:

“The big reason I quit being a daily newspaper movie critic (and it’s a great job, by the way, especially when you’re actually writing in Hollywood) was not so much that I was benumbed by too many bad movies; it’s that the movies were so numbingly bad in exactly the same ways, and I wearied of writing about that week after week. I swear, after a while it was like I could actually see the committees of development and/or marketing execs tailoring what I was watching for its target demographic — even (maybe especially) the indies, too many of which are simply the resumes of aspiring studio hacks. (And who wants to watch somebody’s resume?) That’s not to say the movies couldn’t be “outrageous” and “offensive” — it’s that they were clearly outrageous and offensive within designated parameters so as to appeal to the movie’s pre-determined audience.

Film distributors aren’t really in the entertainment business (and certainly not in the art business); they’re in the risk management business. That’s great if you’re selling insurance — and even the insurers attempt to tilt the odds in their favor (while making a mockery of the concept behind their own commodity) when they attempt to limit their clients to only the (statistically) least risky. The problem with this risk-averse approach to movies is twofold: 1) it doesn’t work — financially, they might be even better off going with somebody’s “gut instinct” (the mogul’s? the filmmaker’s?) as they are with “market research”; and 2) it results in movies that nobody in particular is all that excited about seeing — not even the people who made them. That’s why virtually all the movies that are hits — with audiences and/or critics — seem to turn out to be those that the risk managers were most reluctant to make in the first place, from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘The Crying Game’ to ‘Million Dollar Baby’ to ‘Brokeback Mountain.’ ”

This is one of those things I thought about a lot while I took a hiatus from online activities, namely that the corporations behind the production of entertainment media are trying to apply general corporate principles for doing business to the types of endeavors that don’t really understand or flourish under B-school thinking.

When out doing publicity duties, actors who work with Dick Wolf (whose background was initially in advertising and not in show business) often plant their tongues firmly in their own cheeks when referring to the ‘Law & Order brand family’. If you have a marketing or (as in my case) an intellectual property law background, you see the financial merits of Wolf’s effort to create a trademark, get it name recognition, and create entire product lines (and licensing opportunities) that carry that mark. But then as a viewer, a person who just wants to be entertained, you can also appreciate the cynicism with which the actors (or other creatives on the payroll) speak of ‘branding’. No human being wants to be marked (or treated) as if he or she were merely livestock, just one member of a large indistinct herd. 

To go back over a bit of old gossipy ground, it is not all that surprising that VDO or many who work in TV and film production would find the notion of mandatory attendance at a corporate seminar on sexual harassment to be a bit foolish, just as the creatives might scratch their heads if they had to sit through a company meeting on acceptable computer and Internet use policies or other forms of corporate training and instruction that many Americans working in offices and cubicles outside the entertainment industry have to endure. But that isn’t to say that GE/NBC/Universal don’t potentially have legal liability or productivity problems if one of the artsy types makes repeated lewd comments or downloads a virus onto the company’s email server, much less that the company doesn’t need such risk management policies to try and prevent those very problems.

What seems to be happening, and perhaps why some of the entertainment products out there for general consumption are so bad in that they are so uniformly mediocre, is that general corporate practices are running smack into artistic (and somewhat emotional) sensibilities and mowing down that which is artistic, emotionally provocative and ultimately interesting. It is this universal automatic one-size-fits-all application of what some exec learned in his MBA classes without regard to the fact that the product being made must have a modicum of entertainment value and/or artistic merit that really screws up movies and TV shows, alienating both the creatives that make them and those who are supposed to watch them.

Unlike electric light bulbs or many of the more utilitarian products that GE makes, consumers of entertainment media do so out of *choice* not necessity. And while to some extent you can create formulas for TV series or movies, eventually the consumers will crave novelty in their amusements, not to mention the creatives who will be stifled by the rigid repetetive application of formulaic technique to arrive at the same result no matter what the minor variations in the script might be. To strive constantly for consistency to the point where each project is mostly indistinct from the rest of the company’s output is desirable for say a 60 watt candelabra light, but renders movies and TV utterly tedious. It is no wonder that viewers turn off their sets or skip the trip to the local multiplex, cursing the dimness of those who make such boring fare.

What entertainment companies need are people at the top who either have a good grounding in how to move the emotions, ideas, and imaginations of an audience, or bosses who have the good sense to stay the heck out of the way of the creatives they have hired and not treat the entertainment ‘division’ as if it were just another ‘widget-making division’ of a multinational conglomerate.

Oh for the days of Louis B Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn, people who knew as much about making dreams as making money!

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