January 21, 2015

Entertainment as mood stabilizer vs. experimentation

This video by the gang at Red Letter Media pokes fun at how many of this year's upcoming movies will be sequels, prequels, remakes, reboots, adaptations from other media, etc. The unstoppable nature of this trend really makes you wonder what's behind it. To understand it, we need to see its full scope.

See my earlier post that crunches the numbers on how common this unoriginal approach to storytelling in film has been, using the top movies at the box office from 1936 to 2011. In short, it tracks the outgoing vs. cocooning social cycle: cocooning audiences prefer familiar material more than outgoing audiences, who want to experience a story they haven't already heard about. Another post hinted at the same trend in pop music, where the same song stays on the year-end charts for more than a single year nowadays, although that was not an exhaustive study over time.

I haven't crunched any numbers on it, but there's also a clear trend in TV shows toward creating multiple adaptations of a single brand (CSI, CSI: Los Angeles, CSI: Sheboygan...). American Idol featured entirely familiar songs, only sung by people you've never heard of. And Dancing with the Stars not only has familiar songs, but familiar personalities dancing along to them. The judges on these competitions are also familiar stars.

As long as it's instantly recognizable, audiences will cling to it for dear life. That seems to be the proper way to interpret this broad trend — not as "against change" or "against novelty," and by implication "for what is traditional" or "for what has been proven to work."

These lame rehashings are no more than a generation old, so they are not part of an enduring tradition whose preservation the audience feels bound to maintain. They are merely a security blanket for a population afflicted by anxiety and depression, in contrast to the delightfully off-beat material that the fun-loving audiences sought in more outgoing times, with a peak in the 1980s.

This view of entertainment as self-medication as opposed to experimentation suggests a link to the forms of drug use that prevail in cocooning vs. outgoing times. This post reviewed the distinction between stabilizing and destabilizing drugs, and showed that the stabilizers soar in cocooning periods, while destabilizers become popular in outgoing periods.

Stabilizers give a little pep to the depressed and mellow out those with shaky nerves — the popular amphetamines and barbiturates that were consumed on a massive scale during the Midcentury. The turning point came during the '70s when the public reacted against the attempt to mainstream the use of Valium. But as cocooning returned in the '90s, the mainstream returned to drugs like Prozac for the on-edge and Ritalin for the restless. These stabilizing drugs are an attempt to correct the emotional dysfunction that comes from being socially cut-off.

Destabilizers are about opening up the mind to strange, new moods and experiences, not to return the mind to normal. Marijuana, cocaine, alcohol, and the like. They flourish when the mainstream already has a satisfying social life and normal emotional functioning, and seeks out something beyond the ordinary. They are "party drugs" or "social drugs," unlike Miltown or Prozac, which are meant for the isolated housewife or Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. Because they are more destabilizing, people use them with greater wariness about their dangers than they do when consuming antidepressants and focus-enhancers, which are taken complacently.

Entertainment, then, is just another form of self-medication in cocooning times, or off-the-beaten-path experimenting in outgoing times. This psychiatric view may go farther toward explaining the tendency of cocooning periods to be more culturally bland, stale, and monotonous, than other views which tend to dehumanize the self-medicating cocooners as inherently dull and uncreative.

They may in fact have similar creative capacities and ability to appreciate novelty, but they are being suppressed in order to meet the more fundamental psychological need for everyday emotional regulation. Folks in outgoing times have Maslow's basic social and emotional needs met, so they are freed up for higher pursuits in creativity and self-actualization.


  1. It was during the outgoing 1980's when sequels became commonplace. Jason Vorhees, Michael Meyers, and Freddy Krueger had entire cottage industries in Hollywood backing them.

  2. None of those movies were hits, other than the first Halloween (not a sequel). Read the earlier post with data from 1936 to 2011.

    There were a handful of sequels that were big -- Star Wars, Star Trek, Back to the Future, Beverly Hills Cop... all spread out over the whole decade, though. In any given year of the '80s, sequels were not that big among popular movies.

  3. Re: Hollywood backing, note that the horror franchises back then were all being produced by independents, not by the major studios. One indy company has a modest success with some horror movie, is unlikely to have many more original successes, so they keep riffing on their original "one-hit wonder" movie.

    Today's endless sequels are being made by the major studios, who could very well throw their massive influence and giant budgets at an original project, if that would sell with the mainstream. It won't, so they don't bother.

  4. Friday the 13th was in fact a big hit. From Box Office Mojo:
    18 Friday the 13th (1980) Par. $39,754,601 N/A $5,816,321 1,100 5/9

    It was the 18th highest grossing movie of the year. Not bad. There were only 5 movies to gross more than $70 million that year.

    It is true that that generally speaking, 80's sequels tended to be much less popular than the originals.

    Sequels could not be relied on to make a whole lotta money so Hollywood in fact did not treat them as "tentpole" movies that would make or break a CEO or even movie producer's fate.

    The Friday the 13th films were essentially low budget independent films originating from the NE grindhouse exploitation industry (the directors of the 1st movie and 5th movie started in porn) released by Paramount for some quick easy cash. Paramount wasn't involved at all in the first movie until it had been completed.

    Paramount got involved with the sequels but it still just amounted to a young producer named Frank Mancuso giving the OK on sequel content; If Paramount was really invested they would've been far more involved and given the movie's much bigger budgets. The 1st was a big hit that every teen saw but the sequels were progressively less popular as audiences in the 80's wanted freshness and new characters.

    The Halloween films were much less successful after the first movie. A Muslim independent filmmaker/businessman named Moustapha Akkad (who made a epic film about the birth of Islam, not exactly the kind of person to be chummy with the Jews who dominate Hollywood) financed the first movie. Part 2 and 3 were done by Universal; Part 3 had mediocre Box office and Universal lost interest. Akkad bought the rights back and independently produced and released Part 4 (1988) and Part 5 (1989) which did OK and they certainly made Akkad and other investors a decent amount of money but again no major studio was even involved.

    The Nightmare on Elm Street sequels were actually quite popular, though they were produced and released by a true independent, New Line, who did in fact stake their fortunes on the NOES movies with fairly generous budgets and marketing. That being said, the public totally lost interest after part 4. Freddy became so overmarketed (3 movies in 3 years of diminishing quality) that teens didn't care by 1989.

    It should be noted that these franchises started with original characters. Much of the abuse directed at the industry for exploiting franchises since the late 70's usually forgets to note that the late 70's/1980's franchises at least had original characters. Dirty Harry, Star Wars, Alien, Rambo, Police Academy etc. were all new unlike many mid century franchises or post 2000 franchises. This revisionist criticism also disingenuously overlooks trite, dull mid century remakes/sequels/serials which were as popular as the original/standalone films that high brow critics admire. Why be accurate when you can preen and sneer at Spielberg and Lucas for allegedly destroying an art form? It's just pompous jealousy masquerading as sophistication.

    The modern equivalent of George Lucas would be told: "we're not interested in an original idea, it's not a known brand. If you really like Flash Gordon so much let's just remake that". The jabs at Lucas for plundering his nostalgia conveniently forget that he created a new property that was like an improved variant on what he'd seen before. The execution is just as important as the concept.

    It goes without saying that remakes were WAY less common in the late 70's/80's than now or in the mid century.

  5. Other thought- The 1980's two Jaws sequels were impoverished flicks that the public laughed at.

    The makers of each Friday the 13th sequel, beginning with Part 3 assumed that no future movies would be made. Basically, a Boston theater chain and Paramount ended up being tempted by easy cash and a few phone calls would be made to make another one. Part 7 was completed within about 3 months after one of those calls, the director says he was amazed that the movie was even halfway watchable given the time and money constraints.

    Contrast that with Marvel/Disney mapping out movie years in advance.

    I think it goes without saying that the self consciously EPIC mega budgeted brainless nonsense that these studios take years to churn out usually sucks any vibrant imaginative life out of these movies on top of the fact that rehashing decades old characters inspires no creative "it's mine" spark by those involved.

  6. I'm using "hit" to mean top 10, which Halloween broke into in 1978. If you go too much farther down the rankings, it doesn't mean as much because they didn't release that many movies way back then.

    Nightmare on Elm Street movies weren't very popular with the public, only with teenagers. The first one (the only good one) ranked #40 for the year. Freddy's Revenge moved up to #30, Dream Warriors got #24, and Dream Master reached the franchise's peak at #19. After that, the sequels went to #47, #37, and #79.

    I wouldn't call those hits. Visible in the background, but not standing out in the foreground. More prominent in the lives of teenagers, though, of course.

  7. It's possible that Terminator 2 (1991) was the beginning of super (e.g. over) saturation marketing and mega hype which inevitably made the movie itself too familiar so that by the time you actually watched the damn thing it wasn't as exciting. Compare that to the '84 original; even if you'd seen the preview a couple times you still were largely ignorant about the characters and the nature of the story so audience's in '84 got a more satisfying experience. It helps that the '84 movie is leaner and better in just about every way outside of a couple cheap looking effects.

    The sequel also had a much larger budget which meant a bigger cast, more settings, and more effects but ultimately what do these things matter if the story is worse, the characters less endearing, and your style is less adroit?

    I think the precipitous drop in quality has necessitated overwrought production values and marketing campaigns which are designed to create excitement for shiny but soulless product.

    If you look at the culture's treatment of 70's/80's movies back then (even sequels), it's obvious that people weren't dorky enough to breathlessly follow a movie months (or even years) prior to release. And when something did come out people didn't become emo ecstatic like it was the second coming of Christ. It's just a movie, save the jubilation for your real life.

    Ironically movies were better back then but people didn't make a big deal out of them, even when it was great. Trekkies seeing the 1979 Star Trek movie dozens of times was a total niche thing; on the other hand, millions of teens saw Titanic several times in it's 1997/98 run. When the average person has an engaging life they don't need to see anything 4 times in the theater. Even an awesome movie like the 1984 Terminator.


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