Saturday, September 8, 2007

Is There a Market For Thought-Provoking Content?

"Television is the first truly democratic culture - the first culture available to everybody and entirely governed by what the people want. The most terrifying thing is what people do want."
-Clive Barnes, British-born drama critic.

With the overwhelming popularity of "reality TV," I think Mr. Barnes sentiment is heard loud an clear by many. But, does that mean people don't want to watch thought-provoking television or movies anymore?

A friend and I were talking about this subject in reference to science fiction and fantasy as those two genres are perfect for exploring the human condition. We were commiserating about the dwindling number of sci fi shows and films. Sci fi somewhere along the line was infiltrated by other genres and took over. Sci fi is now mostly an element of some other major genre like horror or drama. Horror/Slasher with sci fi elements like Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem. A over-sexed political drama with sci fi elements like Battlestar Galactica. Or a lame attempt at Flash Gordon which is more like a contemporary cop show than it is sci fi. These shows and films do not put their sci fi roots first, they only use elements. Gone are Firefly, Farscape and Enterprise prematurely. Gone is Masters of Science Fiction. We have to look to the Brits with Doctor Who and Torchwood to get new sci fi. Stargate: Atlantis has had some really smashing shows and I look forward to more, but how many years do they have left? Bionic Woman will undoubtedly be another cop show. And in the theater, what's coming? There are a few interesting children's fantasies coming, but I don't know of anything sci fi save Star Trek 11. So, is there a reason for this?

I think there is certainly a market for (real) sci fi and fantasy. I just don't know if networks are willing to fund them because they don't usually get very high ratings. They get millions of people watching, but it seems they can't get the viewership of Survivor or Dancing With the Stars. It's the same deal with any thought provoking show that's not a cop show. It's the same at the theater, too. Studios want shapely teen butts in seats at the mall googaplex because that's where the big money is (they think.) They want Wedding Crashers and remakes and cheap horror flicks because they make a bigger percentage than most all thought provoking films. They consider Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as aberrations and similar projects far too risky. Of course, they're right. They are risky and it's likely that some of the Hollywood fodder will make a larger percentage than it cost to make, but they forget that there is a good chance that well written and executed sci fi will make at least some profit and have video sales from now until doomsday. Wedding Crashers will fade into obscurity, while some fans will have a SelectaVision, VHS, DVD and BluRay of Blade Runner. (They may also have the 2nd release --or is it 3rd-- DVD set coming out in December... oh and the HD DVD.) Oh, and yes I said SelectaVision which was indeed the coolest thing.

It's very possible for a thoughtful show or film to be successful, but networks and studios really have to be reminded of that over and over. For networks, sci fi is expensive to make. Reality TV is super cheap. And reality TV has been getting a massive viewership way beyond many thoughtful shows. That short term history is what they see. And the viewership has a large contingent of impressionable McDonald's eating people and advertisers like that. So, it's a really hard sell on TV because other reality-based shows are selling very well, too. Cop shows, lawyer shows and special agents are huge. It's a tough nut to crack. Of course, sci fi is sometimes too hard for marketers to grasp anyhow. And marketers rule the roost. And who knows if we'll still have an ally with Scifi Channel. They aren't producing very many new original shows and the ones they are creating are mostly cheap crap. Of course, the original movies also have not improved-- rather those crews are probably the ones who are making the shows now. Atlantis is the only good show being made except for Doctor Who, which is bought in syndication. They picked up Enterprise and Jake 2.0 which originally aired on failed UPN, but their running out of old shows to buy. NBC has already put at least one WWE show on Scifi and uses the space for repeats of their main network shows. I'm afraid NBC is just going to transition it into something other than Scifi because they think advertisers will like it more if it didn't say sci fi anymore. I'm not sure.

For film, it's a little less bleak. Wedding Crashers made 400% more money than it took to shoot and promote. Holy wow what a bargain, right? Well, Star Wars Episode III made over 500%. Return of the King, 660%. When it's good and appeals to a wide audience, the film puts butts in seats. (Heh, the LotR trilogy grossed $2,923,933,388. Yeah, that's billion with a "B." And last I knew New Line still hadn't paid the cast and crew for the reshoots.) Marketers still rule the roost, but maybe they can be more easily convinced than on TV.

I guess the bottom line is we have to figure out how to remind those in power (marketers) that thoughtful content makes money, too. And then we have to make sure they stay out of making creative decisions! The level of trust given to creators by studios and networks may be at an all-time low. Or, maybe creators are just capitulating or simply aren't getting hired because they're... too creative? Too interested in making good content? Or is it that they're just not getting enough funding? I don't know, but something has to inform the powers that we're all in this together and new, progressive content is the only thing that will ensure a long future for filmed entertainment. Wouldn't that be a kicker if video games overtake TV and film because they're stories are deeper and more entertaining...

So what do you guys think? Are there movies or shows coming up that I don't know about? Is there hope on the horizon that I can't see? I want to know! As always, thanks much for reading.


Trūth ɪs Pɑwər said...

Definitely some great points as usual, King Friday ;) Sadly, until there's a major shift in cultural paradigm, I think what it will take to reverse this trend is Leaders with real artistic vision really stepping up to the plate. IMHO, preceisely what we need are more Peter Jacksons and even, dare I suggest, more Mel Gibsons (insane though he may be), with the audacity to break all the rules and prove the system wrong. Thoughts?

Joel said...

I didn't think I had anything to add to our discussion until I watched this video review for Bioshock. Maybe video games offer an outlet for thought-provoking sci-fi. Think of it: you can capture your audience with a blow-the-hell-out-of-everything first-person shooter while simultaneously immersing them in a well-crafted story that can activate their minds in between boss battles. The fact that games have an interactive element that TV and movies lack give them all the more potential, I think.

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