Hollywood vs. homes and cellphones

ht02Forget all those raging debates about art, truth, commerce, faith, tolerance and free speech. It turns out that Hollywood thinks its box-office woes are rooted in -- cell telephones, home theaters, rude adults, on-screen ads, ticket prices and fidgety tots. At least, that is what the National Association of Theater Owners told the gatekeepers at the New York Times. But even in this "Problems? We ain't got no stinkin' middle-America problems" story by reporter Sharon Waxman, there is a hint of the topics being discussed much more openly in the Los Angeles Times.

Let's listen in on one or two conversations with customers at the movies:

"It's gotten too expensive to go the theater," said Lauren Schneider, 49, who was strolling along the Santa Monica pedestrian mall on a brisk evening recently with her husband, Sascha. "You need a baby sitter. Tickets are $10, the popcorn is another $10. Before you're done it's a $50 night out."

When they think a movie is a must-see -- like "King Kong" or "Good Night, and Good Luck" -- they will go, said the couple. Otherwise, "if it's borderline, I'll wait to rent it on DVD," Mrs. Schneider said. ...

Among a dozen moviegoers interviewed at the Santa Monica AMC theater, almost all cited ticket prices as a major factor in deciding whether to attend a movie. Several said ads were a nuisance. Most cited the caliber of the movies as the biggest issue.

"There's a lack of quality stories," said Lisa Martin, 40, from Bakersfield, Calif., who was on her way to see "Syriana." "We feel like if we're going to spend this amount of money, we want to see something good."

What we have here are some powerful buried and unpacked pronowns -- "they" and "we" -- in phrases such as "when they think a movie is a must-see" and "we feel like if we're going to spend."

Who are these people?

Truth is, we don't know. And, truth is, the American public is way too complex these days to provide a simple answer.

So Dr. James Dobson and Co. are wrong when they say Hollywood is out of touch with America. But they are right when they say that Hollywood is offending millions of Americans.

You see, different parts of Hollywood, with differing degrees of clout, are in touch with different Americas. The lords of the PG-13 blockbuster coalition are finding ways -- sometimes -- to punch the buttons of Red Zip Code America and fairly large numbers of that cherished 15-40 male demographic. An emerging niche of "values" moviemakers are just starting to explore ways to tap the 10 to 40 percent of the American public that is, in some sense, practicing a fairly traditional form of Christianity. The highly, highly skilled world of edgy, progressive Hollywood artists -- religious and secular -- who want to send messages just as much as they want to make cash are reaching their niche and helping shape the values and public image of Hollywood as a whole.

Are they a majority? Are they a gatekeeping elite? Are they too powerful for the good of their own industry?

We can debate that forever, I guess. Meanwhile, the values wars are only ONE PART of the tsunami of change that is hitting Hollywood. The pop-culture wars are real, but they may not be as powerful as the changes in technology that are allowing ordinary Americans to see and hear the movies and shows that they love in home theaters. And those cell telephones and ticket prices matter, as well.

So there are multiple forces pulling at the "they" and "we" groups in this complex and diverse culture I call Oprah America. What I called the "Brokeback stone table" issue is real, but it is only one part of a larger story. Many on the cultural right want to say it's the whole story. Many on the cultural left want to ignore it. Both are wrong.

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