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Don’t Forget To Watch The Movie; Or, The Auerbach Hypothesis

June 27, 2012

The question is simple: what explains the rise of the reboot, the adaptation and the sequel as a (if not the) dominant feature of mainstream big-ticket moviemaking? Particularly this summer season, the number of sequels and franchise adaptations in the pipeline is staggering. I’m personally waiting for the studio fat cats to greenlight the sequel to Battleship — Battleships.

The classic explanation for all this is to wave hands and give a cranky roll of the eyes, declaring that Hollywood has simply run out of ideas. The Art of Moviemaking, so the story goes, is just not what it used to be. To be sure, that’s one potential story we can tell ourselves. Though intellectually it’s frankly a bit pat — and relies on a generalized stereotype of the creative forces behind Hollywood that seems pretty simplistic at best.

Another potential theory might place the blame on the Internet. The argument, it might go, is that the media environment is increasingly disperse and fragmented. This suggests that what was previously a monolithic, homogenized market is now an overwhelming ecosystem of differing preferences and tastes in movies. So, from the point of view of a risk-averse producer, the only types of movies that might reliably (and less riskily) make money would be proven, established franchises. Ironically, in such a model, sequel overload in the big ticket movies is a symptom of the vast diversity of the Internet, the last gasp of an ailing industry under fire.

Another — perhaps more sophisticated — approach argues that the incorporation of film companies into vast diversified business empires tends to change the calculus that studios make when deciding which films to bet on. Since sequels tend to monetize a whole line of different related products — merchandise, DVDs, and so on — the business of movies is such that it is more profitable to release sequels and derivatives that monetize the entire franchise in aggregate, rather than a new, independent media product with no extended product base.

All these are plausible stories that explain how big budget movie production has gotten to the particular distribution of content it has. They are, all three, supply-side arguments for how the movies are like they are. In short, the fault lies with Hollywood. In short, they all posit some change that occurred at some point in the production and business model of cinema that renders big ticket filmmaking filled to the brim with half-hearted derivatives of existing franchises.

But, ultimately, no matter their proposed mechanism, supply-side arguments seem flimsy at best.

Particularly if you buy the idea that the increasingly vast supply of accessible media makes audiences ever more fickle, the vision of Hollywood executives forcing the dreck of yesterday down the throats of an unhappy public seems unrealistic at best. There is no captured, inelastic market of film consumers here to exploit (except, perhaps, in the world of kid films – where each demanding consumer drags along a number of accompanying consumers) — presumably if the studios were really producing films that no one actually wanted to see, those viewers would peel away over time. Moreover, there would be a large profit incentive for an enterprising firm to invest in high quality and novel fictional franchises.

Simply, this is a big, apparent inefficiency in the market, economically speaking. What gives?

My friend Dan Auerbach casually proposed an alternative explanation — The Auerbach Hypothesis — over some nasty-ass fast food at South Van Ness institution Whiz Burger a few months back which is quite fun. I’ve been puzzling over it ever since trying to figure out if it actually provides a better explanation for the observed pattern. You would need more data to tell, and part of the objective of this here post is to see if anyone out there on the Internet has the numbers or a more informed opinion than the armchair speculation I’m engaging in here.

The argumentative gambit is to start out by not finding the source of sequel overload in the supply, but in the demand-side dynamics at work in the movie industry. In other words, it is the public at large which is demanding the remake, the sequel and the adaptation, which is why it is increasingly being supplied.

Then, the next step is to avoid the obvious generalization that the public is stupid and wants dumb remakes. Even if true and measurable, it doesn’t explain why a shift occurred within the past few decades beyond some get-off-my-lawn argument that kids-these-days are less bright than they used to be.

Instead, the proposed mechanism is this: the persistence of franchises provided by inexpensive recorded media and accessibility through the Internet has made it more profitable to mine nostalgia. 

Cheap and instantaneous access to a nearly unlimited library of old media products through DVDs and otherwise allows franchises to stay alive and fresh in the collective memory of popular culture for a longer period of time. It has, therefore, become more profitable over time — rather than less — to release reboots and sequels on existing media products. In the absence of constant reminders of plots and characters that we’ve seen before, it might be less profitable and riskier trying to polish up and reintroduce the movie watching public to an old, otherwise moribund franchise that they’ve long forgotten about. Media technology aids memory, providing fertile demand for that which was seen before.

In short, the media environment acts as a kind of life support for old memes by continuing to circulate them long after when they might otherwise go largely extinct. It seems plausible that this effect might so sufficiently lower the risks as to make the expected value of derivative works relatively higher on the balance than taking a chance on new, untested creative works. And hence, Battleships.

This conjecture seems difficult to prove cleanly. The relaunch of shows like Futurama and Family Guy through their post-cancellation distribution on DVD and streaming provides at least some anecdotal evidence that such a mechanism does exist in the wild, though I’m trying to come up with a good way of measuring and showing this on aggregate.

If true, though, this explanation has a neat, underlying dimension to it: it tells a story which links the changing technological structure of media delivery to the actual creative tastes and preferences of the general public. Old Man McLuhan would be proud.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    June 28, 2012 12:32 am

    First of all, let me say as the alleged author of said hypothesis that you put it far more eloquently and sharply than my off-the-cuff Whiz-induced ramblings, and so deserve much if not most of the credit for this hypothesis.

    As to the question of measuring it, I think that as with all social science measurements it might be possible to get bits and pieces of evidence, but too hard to actually measure it. But maybe that’s just the math guy in me being too demanding of an impossible level of proof. Or the hater in me who wants to sweepingly dismiss macroeconomics entirely as hopelessly unscientific.

    In any case, one simple empirical question that I think would be interesting and relevant to test this hypothesis is how much people actually re-watch visual media (YouTube, 30 minute shows, hour long shows, movies) today as opposed to years ago. I would hypothesize here that based on changing technology and culture, we’ve been trained to re-watch media more and more and it is accelerating. Film is becoming more like music. If true, this surely has a complicated effect on the supply and demand for visual media, e.g. the increasing demand for YouTube style clips surely has some relationship to the demand for Hollywood movies. But setting most of that aside for the moment, I think this question is relevant to the hypothesis at hand because it provides evidence that there is “fertile demand for that which was seen before.” I suspect this demand exists more now, and will only intensity in the future.

    Given that, the current stronghold that certain superheroes have right now, and the rest of the hypothesis, I’m putting my money on Batman, Spiderman, and X-Men for a solid 100 years. Or more.

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