Junk Food

September 06, 2011
A thought by James Berardinelli

The American appetite for junk food has escalated over the past two decades. When I was a kid in the dark ages of the 1970s, the concept of "fast food" was more a novelty than a necessity. Most of the time when I went out with my mother and grandparents for lunch, we had "hamburgers at Bamburger's" or took out a pizza. I think I may have eaten twice at McDonalds before I turned ten, and the first time was something of an event. Today, of course, many people subsist on a diet either partially or largely comprised of fast food. Not being fond of hypocrisy, I'll admit that most weeks I take out something from either Five Guys or Chick-fil-A. (This entry is not meant to be a diatribe against fast food. In fact, it's not really about fast food at all.)

There is a convenience factor associated with fast food; indeed, that's the reason it first became popular. Making a meal at home can require an hour's effort (depending on what you're cooking) and it can take as long (or longer) to eat out at a restaurant. With fast food, you can go through a drive-in (a godsend if you have young kids) and be away from home for only a few minutes. But there's another aspect of fast food that keeps us coming back: it's addictive. People crave the stuff: Big Macs, Whoppers, salt-encrusted fries, chicken nuggets, and so on.

All junk food is like that, whether it's meals from McDonalds or Burger King, or common snacks. Potato chips, tortilla chips, cheese puffs, candy... none of these things are "good" for you (despite marketing attempts arguing to the contrary) but, once tasted, they lure us back. Even as we eat them, most of us recognize they aren't healthy, that we'd be better off munching on an apple or chewing on a piece of dried fruit. And, instead of the 32-ounce soda, a cup of water would be a better alternative. But we can't help ourselves. The willpower isn't there.

TV is saturated with its own unique brand of junk food. It's called "reality TV" (a genre that includes competition shows and programs that glorify faux celebrities), although it has as much to do with "reality" as Star Trek. It's mind-numbing programming and nearly everyone scoffs at it, yet ratings are consistently high. Shows like American Idol and Jersey Shore wouldn't be on if they weren't commercially viable. The train wreck aspect of these shows is one of the main lures. There's a percentage of the public that watches boxing matches to see vicious knock-outs and attends hockey games with the fervent hope that there are bench-clearing brawls.

The junk food mentality has infected multiplexes as well. Many years ago, I wrote a positive review of a summer blockbuster and stated something along the lines of "every once in a while, it's fun to turn off the mind and simply enjoy an excess of pyrotechnics and special effects." Unfortunately, what once described the occasional big release is now representative of seemingly every would-be "tent pole." From May to August, it's almost impossible for a thinking person to find something to enjoy in a movie theater. The brain-dead zone is so omnipresent that it comes as a surprise when an intelligent film arrives on the scene. These movies are often over-praised because they are so unexpected.

Of course, the real problem with junk food is not what a single meal will do to a person, but how the accumulation of the fat and salt and lack of nourishment will impact long-term health. Imperfect though it may be, Supersize Me illustrated this with alarming clarity. It's the same with television and movies. Watching the occasional "reality show" or dumbed-down summer blockbuster is unlikely to do more than generate a moment's guilt, but a steady diet of such entertainment will fundamentally alter expectations. Smart motion pictures will become like expensive surf-and-turf dinners: for special occasions only.

There's a lot of grumbling about the quality of movies, but most of it comes from talking heads and critics, who see a lot more than the average cinema-goer and who are genuinely tired of all the crap. Think of a food critic forced to eat three meals a week at McDonalds and another two at Burger King. He might not start hating food but he would become resentful of the dining experience. On the other hand, the truly good meals would become that much more enjoyable because of their increasing rarity.

Making movies is a bottom line business, and the landscape has changed in the past 20 years. Studios look at what makes money and greenlight more of the same. Brainless blockbusters often score big at the box office, so their success gives birth to clones. Multiplexes are awash in copycat productions, remakes, and sequels. There's less risk involved. God help an executive who okays an original that fails - he'll never work in the industry again. It's a vicious circle that starts and stops with consumers. The way to end the madness would be for movie-goers to reject the cookie-cutter Hollywood product en masse. That would mean staying away from multiplexes on weekends - not something I see happening unless the economy collapses.

The same addiction that compels us to consume fast food draws us to multiplexes. We want something superficial and tasty, not something nourishing and exquisite. Instant gratification can be a wonderful thing, but it rarely leads to long-term satisfaction. And so it goes in movie theaters.

Laziness plays a part in all of this on the side of the filmmakers and the film-goers. No rule states that blockbusters must be dumb. They must be spectacular, but many of the early examples - Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, etc. - were as smart as their less ostentatious counterparts. Blame Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Those two discovered that audiences could be fooled into enjoying vacuous films if they showcased appealing stars, impressive visuals, and popular soundtracks. The least important aspect of any Bruckheimer film is the screenplay. Follow the formula, make a billion dollars.

Consumers never fought back. They accepted these movies in the beginning as entertaining oddities, then quickly became accustomed to them. The addiction took hold. For a while, dumb blockbusters were able to co-exist side-by-side with their more intelligent, enlightened siblings. That was during the '90s, the era in which indie distributors like Miramax, Fine Line, and Sony Classics were doing big business. Art houses were consistently packed. The beginning of the end came as each of the "boutique distributors" was gobbled up by a major studio craving a specialty arm. October, Artisan, and Fine Line are memories. Miramax exists in name only. Only Sony Classics stays true to its original mission statement, but the number of films it releases each year is paltry.

It comes down to finances. In the '10s, it's not good enough to be profitable. Big money is the road to success. A small indie might cost only $1M to make and an equal amount to market. If well-received in art-houses, it might gross as much as $10M over its run, for a gaudy profit of $8M. In the '90s, that was enough. For October Films, a 500% windfall represented a phenomenal success. Today, however, it's chump change. A potential blockbuster might cost $200M to make and market. World-wide, it could pull in $500M. Who cares about $10M when that kind of money is involved? The success of a movie was once measured in the percentage return on cost. Now, it's pure dollars.

There is erosion at the box office. 2011's year-to-date tickets sold lags behind last year's, which trailed 2009's. Home video is showing more steep declines. Movies are still big sellers, but there's not as much excitement and few titles are becoming "beloved" or "keepers." Is Hollywood paying attention? It doesn't seem so, at least not yet, but the head-in-the-sand mentality can only go on for so long. The 3-D situation is a key example of the disconnect that exists between the decision makers and the movie-goers.

Viewed from a business perspective, it's not about whether 3-D enhances or degrades the experience. Filmmakers may care but the people signing the checks do not. Ultimately, 3-D will succeed or fail based on one simple criteria: is it profitable? Right now, the answer is "yes." Probably. But it's not nearly as profitable on a per-movie basis as it was several years ago, when the format was new, hot, and sexy. With every sub-par release, it grows cooler. Anecdotal evidence shows that more and more movie-goers are opting for 2-D over 3-D when the option is available. The $3 surcharge is probably the primary reason why. Movie-goers have shown they're willing to pay extra for an effects-laden extravaganza like Transformers 3 but they aren't interested in seeing Thor thump Loki with an extra dimension. There's an audience out there for 3-D, especially for animated, action, and horror films, but it's not as robust as was predicted. 3-D is here to stay - too much money has been invested in it by those who drank the cool-aid - but it will be downsized. There will be fewer 3-D movies per year and fewer 3-D screens for each of those titles. Until Hollywood can convince consumers that 3-D is special, the $3 surcharge seems like a rip-off. This particular junk food has to fight to avoid going the way of New Coke.

We get the movies we deserve. The more we vote for a particular type of motion picture by plunking down $10 for a ticket, the more of that kind of film there will be in the future. For over a decade, we have been voting for loud, superficial experiences - Shakespeare's "sound and fury, signifying nothing" - and this is what we're getting. It's becoming pervasive, crowding out the good stuff. How long until multiplexes and amusement parks merge with a McDonalds next door to each one? Then we can pig out all day on junk food and junk cinema before going home and watching Dancing with the Has-Beens on TV. Who said life isn't worth living?