Lights, Camera, and the Capitalist Intervention
Updated: Aug 29, 2022
Media is entertainment; a perfect set up for audiences to visualize an alternate reality infused with melodramatic confessions, theatrical plot lines and a great sense of self importance. We expect or at the very least, hope for this fiction to manifest itself in reality. And why shouldn’t we? Media is a reflection of reality, or rather, an ideal reality that is desired by the majority of the population. However, ‘ideal’ is far from what we experience in daily life and this standard of living is heavily influenced by those creating it.
Scene 1: Welcome to the Cinema
What gets a movie on your screen? To shorten an essay to a single phrase: a production house. Based on the statistics pertinent to The United States, there are currently five major production houses competing for the highest ratings. These are - Universal, Paramount, Warner Bros, Walt Disney and Columbia.
What is their role? Anything and everything from financing, to actually directing a script. Their goal is to create something that primarily engages the audience, enrapturing them with ambitions of a break from monotony. The more they are influenced by the movie, the more they want to watch it, and the more profits the company earns. The easiest way to have larger masses invest in these movies, by naive logic, is to include a variety of experiences, histories and perspectives, ones not restricted to only the majority. Throughout the evolution of cinema, there have been attempts to encourage, and even discourage the promotion of obscure sections of society. They colour the calibre of representation today but certainly don’t define it.
Scene 2: The Backstory
Maintaining a symbiotic relationship between social representation and commercial gain is about as tricky as it sounds. For the longest time, the multiplicity of expression we see in the media today was a societal taboo. Well, sometimes a taboo, sometimes punishable by law. The most relevant example of the same is the Jordan Honor Killing, which allows a man to kill his wife in a fit of rage. The same prejudice is embedded in the media we consume, regardless of the minority. Women having a job and personality outside their homes? Unacceptable. A dark-skinned individual in a domestic setting as the master of the house? Preposterous. A man in a romantic relationship with another man? Scandalous. When compared with their traditional counterparts, these communities are minorities. When considered as a viewer for the newest release, it became essential to incorporate some part of their personality into the movie. Inclusivity translated into economic worth. However, replacing classic action flicks and romedies with a wave of modern and liberal ideas ran the chance of offending the majority group, and it still does.
The first to address the ‘problem’ of non-traditional communities, in 1934, was the Motion Picture Production Code or the Hays Code in America- a prude set of guidelines that set into motion the culture of queer coding. It aimed to appease the heterosexuals while simultaneously bringing to light stereotypes associated with the queer populace. This is a practice we can still see today, with a bland, inoffensive hero vs a usually flamboyant villain.
In 1985, Alison Bechdel’s comic strip regarding a woman’s criteria to watch a movie snowballed into a revolutionary guideline for the correct portrayal of women in media. The three requirements for the same were that the movie should show at least two women, they must talk to each other, and the topic of their discussion should be something other than men. This is however the bare minimum and cannot accurately portray a multi-dimensional female character. Despite that, almost 58% of movies managed to fail all three requirements.
A year later, the concept of colourblind casting was brought up by the Non-Traditional Casting Project to reduce the bias and limitation on the kind of roles coloured actors could take up. As the name suggests, it was a method of casting that completely disregarded the performer’s skin colour. This invited a lot of controversy regarding appropriation but still saw sporadic success, alternating between strong criticism and bold appreciation.
These practices act as a stepping stone to the representation we see in the media today, the most common example of which can be queerbaiting. They are now, in some ways, problematic and superficial, and hence tapering towards discontinuity. There is currently no rule, nor any vague instruction on how one must go about creating a blockbuster that appeals both to society as well as one's wallet.
Scene 3: The Plot Thickens
Diversity pressure coupled with the desire to financially sustain a company become the two prime factors that influence and administer fictional media. Nonetheless, the two are not inversely related. To make a movie successful, media firms compete in two different arenas- that of the consumers and advertising. If a movie targets the same audience as its competitor, the rating it receives depends completely on whether it performed better or worse than its competitor. The ratings are sure to rise or fall also based on the brands the movies are endorsed by, and the method by which they are advertised.
An ideal economist would support competition, thinking back to the Classic Economic Theory and its easy definition- a tool to engage buyers with new, innovative and high-quality goods. This implies that the content we see in theatres and online should feature a range of ideas, emotions, journeys and storylines. But if this were true for the media industry, the highest-grossing films produced by the major production houses wouldn't all focus on a white man’s sudden rise to power and their moral takeaways, the statistics of which are unfortunately true, even as of 2022.
Media competition is often linked with the notion of the ‘free marketplace of ideas’, the belief that any opinion or information is acknowledged as the truth if it can outsource its competition, regardless of what a censor or authority figure states. Opinions can only be openly discussed and competed against when each party presenting their opinions has free and equal access to the platform. Coupling this with the previous statement makes the reader question, is the media descending into a ruinous competition?
Based on the incessant reboots, remakes, unnecessary sequels and the repetition of similar plot lines across different franchises, the exponential decrease in quality is clear. The most obvious way to break this cycle of continuity would be to find the optimal point between media monopoly and diverse representation, bringing in a plethora of cultures and experiences to colour the monotonous media in a new light.
Scene 4: The Climax
Movies aiming to elevate minorities have often not been successful in their endeavours, or more accurately, successful compared to the movies that adhere to the traditional standpoint. Let’s compare the box office earnings of two movies under Sony released a year apart- ‘Kill Your Darlings’, exploring the life of Allen Ginsberg, a homosexual poet; and ‘Moneyball’, another biopic based on the real-life endeavours of Billy Beane and Peter Brand to form a competitive sports team. Both starred influential actors, Daniel Radcliffe and Brad Pitt, and were also nominated for various awards. And yet, ‘Moneyball’ earned 756 lakhs USD and ‘Kill Your Darlings’, 16 lakhs USD. This trend has been noticed not only within production houses but also within the same franchise. Taking the famous DC brand, ‘The Dark Knight’ grossed at 100.5 crore USD whereas ‘Wonder Woman’ made 82.23 crores USD. Both, according to the reviews, had fast-paced and action-filled plots and were well received, and yet. ‘Birds of Prey’ on the other hand only earned 20.19 crores USD.
Sometimes, a director’s free and authentic expression is appreciated, as can be seen with ‘Jai Bhim’ or ‘Shang-chi’, despite the COVID restraints. Both movies were wonderfully received, taking into consideration the recent unrest regarding the communities both movies target in their respective regionality.
Scene 5: The Conclusion
So finally, what makes a movie successful?
Media economics aims to answer this question. But media economics in itself brings about a paradox. Media is a social mirror, it reflects popular and relevant ideologies onto theatre screens, appeasing trends and giving the masses what they want to see. What the masses do see is, however, tainted with personal biases, values and desires of exceptional profit. In the end, we come to the well-known debate- What came first? The chicken or the egg: representation or money.