Cultural Relevance and Actual Reality

Do you go to the movies anymore? If you’re like most people, probably not. You watch stuff on television (television has long been better than most contemporary films), or on your tablet or phone or laptop.

Chances are you still read, but more likely on your tablet, laptop or phone.

But back to movies. An article this week in the New York Times discussed how Hollywood is looking for ways to make movies culturally relevant again (or as the headline has it “escape cultural irrelevance”).

This article could have been written any number of times over the last decade (and probably has been). And while the article mentioned that television has been the place for deeper exploration of characters, beginning with The Sopranos, movies can’t do that except in fantasy series like Twilight. Really? First of all, the Twilight series is based on novels – which already shows that movies have a harder time coming up with original ideas – and second, its character development is nonexistent compared to something like The Sopranos or Mad Men.

The article then went on to say that Hollywood movers and shakers are considering publicity campaigns to alert people to the quality of some of the Oscar contenders, and even to enlist prominent politicians to supervise film programming. Sounds desperate.

Nowhere was it seriously discussed that Hollywood stop making movies aimed solely at the foreign market, in particular brainless action flicks that play well in China, and make more mid- to low-budget films aimed at smart grownups in the United States. Nah, that would mean trusting in artistic license, and the corporations that run the studios have a fear of originality.

The same mindset can be seen in publishing. The big players are consolidating and are likely to sign people who’ve already made a name rather than take a chance on an unknown who might bring in a new audience. Meanwhile, more writers are taking matters into their own hands, as they should.

And despite this, people in publishing can be equally clueless. One literary agent recently posted on her blog that a self-published authors needs to sell 20,000 copies to be noticed by a traditional publisher. If you’re selling that much on your own, why would you even want a traditional publisher, let alone an agent who’s going to take your money by steering you to less-lucrative ways of publishing?

We aren’t there yet, but we’re coming to a time when more people will be discovered for what they write rather than for the contract they sign, and they’ll be found by an audience hungry for their ideas, and not their literary connections.

It’s unlikely that Hollywood will change enough to create more and better movies aimed at an audience of people who want more than thrillers or fantasy franchises or raunchy comedies. It’s unlikely that publishing will adapt in a more efficient way to the realities of the new marketplace.

It’s up to the writers to do that. Many have, more will follow.

Bob Hughes
Author: Bob Hughes
Robert J. Hughes ("Bob") was a staff reporter for The Wall Street Journal for over a decade, specializing in culture reporting. He was the paper's theater reporter, wrote on publishing, the art and auction markets, television, music, film and philanthropy, and reviewed books.