Monday, May 28, 2018

Notes on High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood, by Justin Wyatt

Picking up Justin Wyatt's High Concept I (like most people who pay much attention to this sort of thing these days, I suppose) already had a fairly good idea of what the term denotes. As Wyatt explains it, in great depth and yet concisely, it is a "straightforward, easily communicated and easily comprehended" narrative whose themes and "appeal" to a broad audience are "immediately obvious" (8). The project that sounds good to an executive in a 25-word "elevator pitch"; that they can be persuaded at least has the potential to look good in a 30-second TV spot or even a poster.

The ease of communication and comprehension is simplified in the case of a "pre-sold property" with a "built-in audience," like a sequel to a prior hit--because not only is there a proven past success, but because the job of selling the product has already been done, and all one has to do is remind the audience of it. It helps, too, for the film to have other, pre-sold features--"bankable" stars (however shaky this concept is), a soundtrack capitalizing on already popular hits (sales of which are, in turn, helped by the movie), a compelling look that in itself is the subject of the sale, integrated with and even overwhelming the narrative. (Fast! Flashy! Sleek! Ultra-modern! Maybe there's nothing much to "see" here, but you can't stop "looking" at it, can you?)

A high-concept movie is a movie that looks good in a commercial, or a promotional music video, because in contrast with a classically made movie it is essentially a very long commercial or music video, in part because it was probably made by a director whose background, at any rate, is in directing commercials or music videos. (Wyatt cites Adrian Lyne, and the Scott brothers Ridley and Tony, and one can spend a long time listing those who have entered filmmaking in similar fashion since--David Fincher and Michael Bay and Simon West and Alex Proyas and Spike Jonze and Dominic Sena and Antoine Fuqua and McG and Gore Verbinski and Zack Snyder and Tarsem Singh and and and . . . while by this point such directors have so long dominated the medium that even a director who learned their craft actually studying movies probably can't help being influenced by their practice.)

Still, Wyatt's book did have some surprises for me, the biggest of which was the range of cinematic concepts to which he saw this as being applicable. Looking at the cover's array of images from major films of the '70s and '80s I am unsurprised to recognize a shot from Jaws. But I am surprised to see shots from Flashdance and Saturday Night Fever above Jaws. Where the actual text of the book is concerned, Wyatt begins not with Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, but Grease (and specifically, a comparison of that critical flop and commercial success with the diametrical opposite in All That Jazz).

And this is, I think, a reflection of profound change in the business over the years. We think of the late '70s as the era which saw the rise of the blockbuster, the '80s as the rise of the Hollywood action movie as a staple of the market. Still, the action movie was a comparatively small part of the market back then. Where out of the top ten films of the year in the '80s at the North American box office there were apt to be a couple of action films, in the twenty-first century the figure was more likely to be five movies--half the list--and often more. At the same time the rest of the top ten list was apt to be dominated by a kind of movie which did not make Wyatt's cover at all--the big-budget, Disney or Shrek-style animated movie, which in the 2010s have averaged three of the top ten annually. Which means that between one and the other, they have accounted for eight of the top ten hits year in, year out, with the other movies on the list likely to be of closely related types (the live-action version of the animated Cinderella, for instance). And since action movies and cartoons are what you make if you want a blockbuster, they comprise a much larger share of the market overall than any other one or two such distinctive styles of film ever have before.

As a result, one would not think of many other kinds of movie as high concept (even if musicals, for example, are occasionally popular and profitable). However, as Wyatt shows through a much deeper development of the concept of a film as an ad than I anticipated, movies were not just ad-like in their aesthetic or feel, but ads for a "lifestyle." (Beverly Hills Cop was about the fantasy of what it is to be rich in "Beverly Hills" as much as it was about the adventure of the "Cop.") I do not think that this is quite as prominent in film today, the use of "lifestyle" in it different. Certainly luxury is common currency in today's commercial filmmaking, anything remotely resembling actual middle-class life or working-class life or poverty generally banished from the screen, but a movie, while expected to depict an "attractive lifestyle," gets a lot less mileage out of doing so, enough so that a movie principally selling lifestyle seems unlikely to earn $1 billion in ticket sales and surcharges. (Tony Stark's high-end consumption in the Marvel movies is part of the package, but it is backdrop, relatively less important to the movie than in a comparable film from the '80s that would have luxuriated in it all a great deal more, more noticeably amid the slighter special effects and slower cutting.)

Still, if Wyatt's profuse discussion of blockbuster as lifestyle ad seems a bit dated now, his discussion retains a relevance for other aspects of pop culture, like music--exemplified by Ted Gioia's observation that, in the course of its swallowing up everything else, "Music Criticism Has Degenerated into Lifestyle Reporting."

As Gioia remarks (finally, other people noticing this!), "During the entire year 1967, The Chicago Tribune only employed the word 'lifestyle' seven times," but today "newspapers have full-time lifestyle editors," while coverage of all the rest of life from weather to business is construed in lifestyle terms ("your commute," "your money"), and certainly, pop culture, with music "treated as one more lifestyle accessory, no different from a stylish smartphone" and "music journalism . . . retreated into a permanent TMZ-zone." Indeed,
if you force pop culture insiders to be as precise as possible in articulating the reasons why they favor a band or a singer, it almost always boils down to: "I like fill in the name because they make me feel good about my lifestyle."
A still bigger irony would be if most consumers of music actually thought in the same way. After all, they don't have lifestyles to feel good or badly about. They simply can't afford lifestyles.

But that reality doesn't save them from the delusion they do.

Groan, groan and groan again.

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