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Tinseltown's Tin Ear

A recent slide in movie attendance suggests a film industry crisis of major proportions, but pop culture potentates seem reluctant to confront it. In May of this year, a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll showed that fully 48 percent of American adults say they go to the movies less often then they did in 2000. For nineteen consecutive weeks, including the heart of the summer 2005 blockbuster season, the motion picture industry earned less (despite higher ticket prices) than it brought in during the corresponding period the year before. Projections of ticket sales for all of 2005 indicate that the public will occupy at least 8 percent fewer seats in movie theaters this year than in 2004—an alarming performance at a time of population growth and a generally robust economy.

To explain the bad news, USA Today ran a lengthy analysis under the mournful headline, “Where have all the moviegoers gone?” Reporters Anthony Breznican and Gary Strauss quoted numerous insiders speaking optimistically about new attempts to rekindle the old romance: “The lures include providing high-tech eye candy through 3-D, digital projection and IMAX versions of movies… Stadium seating, which improves views, is just now becoming standard. Other theaters are opting for screenings that serve alcohol to patrons 21 and older.” Revealingly, none of the studio honchos talked about reconnecting with the mass audience by adjusting the values conveyed by feature films, replacing the industry's liberal posturing with a more diverse, balanced, or (perish the thought) patriotic perspective. Innumerable callers to my radio show have expressed resentment at the partisanship of top directors and stars. No one has ever complained about the lack of 3-D, digital projection, or alcoholic beverages at concession stands.

It's not enough, either, to explain audience alienation with cavalier references to “mediocre movies.” Anyone who reviews films for a living can tell you that most movies have been mediocre for a long time—several decades, at least. Something changed between 2004 and 2005 to cause a sharp, sudden drop-off at the box office, and an obvious factor that entertainment insiders refuse to consider is their own activism during the 2004 election. The show business establishment embraced Senator John Kerry's campaign with near unanimity and bashed President Bush with unprecedented ferocity. Despite the best efforts of entertainer activist and their political associates, a majority of American voters cast their ballots for George W. Bush this past November. If only a small minority of those 62 million GOP voters—say, 20 percent—reacted to Hollywood's electioneering by staying away from the local multiplex, that alone would account for the decline in ticket sales in the months immediately following the president's re-election.

An additional element that may help explain 2005's missing moviegoers involves another bitter controversy from 2004, this one over The Passion of the Christ. That movie earned a startling $370 million at the domestic box office and drew in religious-minded patrons who had for years shunned movies altogether. Amazingly enough, however, no major feature film in the months since the release of The Passion has attempted to speak to that energetic faith-based audience. The Walt Disney Company hopes that churchgoers will flock to the theaters this Christmas season to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the lavish new adaptation of the beloved Christian allegory by C. S. Lewis. That promised deliverance remains speculative, but if the theory proves true, it will say a great deal about Hollywood's real problems.

The refusal to recognize ideological considerations and a “values gap” as major elements in Hollywood's box office collapse reflects the trendy leftism that remains the reigning faith in Tinseltown. The tendency to emphasize material solutions characterizes liberal thinking on a wide range of policy issues—from out-of-wedlock births (provide birth control devices and abortion on demand), to crime (more gun control), to poverty (more welfare), to terrorism (more anti-poverty aid). Above all else, it is this blindness to the philosophic dimensions of major challenges that renders the Hollywood Left unable to reconnect with a skeptical mass audience.

After all, the American people aren't stupid, and they're not all apolitical; many (at least a third) are even self-consciously conservative in both politics and values. Ironically, a new attempt to address the most deeply held commitments of ordinary Americans might help the entertainment elite to create the sort of timeless artistic expressions they say they so desperately wish to contribute.