Allow me to drift a little off topic from improvisation and comedy to the entertainment world at large. Hollywood is making a movie based on Tetris. Apparently, there’s so much “story,” they’re planning a trilogy. Yes, a movie trilogy about Tetris, a video game in which there are zero characters. Guys, what’s going on with us?
I acknowledge that our simple human brains have been exploded by the internet. Right now, most people on the planet can pull a rectangle from their pockets and view millions of hours of video, just plucked out of thin air. Our phones are constantly beeping at us, demanding attention like a starving infant. We break our eyes away from loved ones and aim them at the rectangle, at first to satisfy its demand for attention, then to pacify ourselves until we fall asleep. Every day, we communicate with specific people, broadcast our achievements on social media, monitor the lives of others and entertain ourselves at all times.
The end result of this information onslaught is a ridiculously distorted lifespan for entertainment. You see a funny video, you share it online and forget about it. If someone tries sharing it with you a week later, you must stop yourself from barking, “I’VE ALREADY SEEN THAT.” It’s insulting that this person is bringing you something so “old,” so late. New entertainment has a lifespan of about 36 hours. Really notable entertainment gets a slightly longer life as it is broken into memes and thinkpieces. But after about a week? You might as well be talking about the Gettysburg Address.
As entertainment creators, we must spend weeks, months or years honing our artwork. When finished (or as close to finished as we can get), we release it and pray. Maybe you get that momentary viral glory. Then you’re shoved aside for the next thing. Hollywood has literally no idea how to handle this except trotting out the same things you used to love, twisted in a new way. Hence, “Tetris: The Movie.” Strike that. “Tetris: The Three-Movie Saga.”
Consider the top 20 films of all time in domestic box office.
1. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
2. Avatar (2009)
3. Titanic (1997)
4. Jurassic World (2015)
5. Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)
6. The Dark Knight (2008)
7. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)
8. Star Wars (1977)
9. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
10. The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
11. Shrek 2 (2004)
12. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
13. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
14. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006)
15. The Lion King (1994)
16. Toy Story 3 (2010)
17. Iron Man 3 (2013)
18. The Hunger Games (2012)
19. Captain America: Civil War (2016)
20. Spider-Man (2002)
Twelve of the 20 are sequels. Seven are based on comic books, two are adaptations of actual books. “Titanic” is based on a massively well-known historical event. “The Lion King” is just “Hamlet” with animals. “Avatar” is a dumb version of “Dances With Wolves” or “A Man Called Horse,” but with blue space monkeys. “Pirates of the Caribbean” is based on a theme park ride. So that leaves us with “E.T.” and the 1977 “Star Wars” as the two out-of-nowhere, original hits. Certainly, you can argue “Star Wars” lifted much of its imagery and ideology from old sci-fi serials and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
What can we gain from looking at this list? Audiences like the familiar. It makes sense. Our attention spans are splintered a million ways, so if we’re going to put away our phones for two hours, we want a relative guarantee we’re going to get something we like.
Look closer at the list. Half of all the biggest movies of all time were released in the last six years. Four of them were released in the past 18 months. Surely, that’s a result of today’s higher ticket prices. But that also means today’s audiences are moving monolithically. Huge chunks of the country will pour out for two movies a year. Do they see any other movies the rest of the year? Or does the audience just fragment so badly, it can’t make a dent otherwise?
Movies that reach that rare air also cool very quickly. Let’s look at the week-by-week haul of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
Week 1: $390 million
Week 2: $261 million
Week 3: $118 million
Week 4: $55 million
Week 5: $39 million
Week 6: $19 million
That movie came out December 18. By the end of January, most people were over it. If it was really the biggest movie of all time, shouldn’t it have held stronger? Shouldn’t people have seen it over and over again? Hell, I’m a giant “Star Wars” nerd and I only saw it twice. Shouldn’t the all-time box office champion be an incredible classic? Even if you adjust for inflation, “The Force Awakens” is the 11th highest-grossing movie of all time. Surely, you can think of more than 11 movies better than this one.
This tells us that the audience appetite changes after each bite. We’re in a time when we have a one-night stand with our entertainment. Whether it’s one of these movies or the FX series about OJ Simpson or the ESPN series about OJ Simpson or “Game of Thrones” or “Making a Murderer,” we’re ripping through these shows (often binge-watching), then discarding them and moving on to the next cultural phenomenon. We don’t rewatch. We don’t buy the DVDs. Why would we? We’ve seen it. It’s dead to us.
Truly great art is savored and newly appreciated with every viewing. “Casablanca” and “Citizen Kane” get better as you get older. The films of PT Anderson and Edgar Wright improve as you rewatch them. But most art is not made for that scrutiny. It’s the IKEA furniture of entertainment: cheap, disposable and functional. “Jurassic World” can’t carry “Jurassic Park’s” jock strap. “Tremors” was a better movie than “Jurassic World.” But we had a generation of kids grow up without a dinosaur movie, so they get one, too. And they want to rope in people who remember how great 1993 was, so they slap the “Jurassic” name on there and cross their fingers. It’s lazy. And, more troubling, it worked.
New, original entertainment has a much harder time cutting through the clutter. “What is this thing? Why should I care about it?” In many ways, it seems safer to go to the well and try to approximate our warm childhood feelings with a reheated version of what we loved. Will the new “Ghostbusters” movie be any good? Who knows? But I kinda wish that if the filmmakers wanted to make a sci-fi comedy, they could have used those four actresses in a new way. No matter how good the movie is, it won’t make the older people in the audience feel the way they did in 1984. Hell, that’s the reason every Republican presidential candidate harkens back to the Reagan administration. “Hey, remember how you felt in 1984? Younger? Less sick? Wouldn’t you like to feel that way again?” Nostalgia plays tricks on us. There’s plenty that sucked about 1984. It may come off as sacrilege, but there’s plenty that sucks about the original “Ghostbusters.” We remember a few funny lines and we forget how cheesy the stop-motion demon dogs really were and we gloss over the fact that Ernie Hudson has zero character traits other than “new guy.” (Eddie Murphy must have been busy.) There’s a moment where Dan Aykroyd is dressed like an old sea captain and he gets a blow job from a ghost for some reason. But for its time, “Ghostbusters” was fun. And that’s okay. We can move on to new things.
Does “new” even work anymore? Rarely. The biggest entertainment phenomenon on the planet right now is probably “Hamilton” on Broadway. Yes, it’s an existing story, pulled from history. It’s unique because it combines hip-hop and a diverse cast, telling a largely-forgotten story. I stood in line for nearly four hours to get tickets for its Chicago run (and eventually left the line after using my phone to secure seats). I’m sure I’ll love it. But once I’ve seen it, I’ll be ready for the next thing. That line of people who waited overnight will find a new flavor and we’ll fight over those tickets, too.
A few years ago, there was similar fervor for “The Book of Mormon.” Now, if you go see “Mormon,” most of your friends will shrug. Five years ago? Different story. I worry about Lin-Manuel Miranda. Whatever he comes up with next will be compared to an all-time home run. Even if it’s great, you can’t keep birthing unicorns. Another hip-hop musical? Another diverse cast? Will audiences be disappointed by another serving of the same choices that now thrill them? If Miranda were Hollywood, he’d just keep cranking out bio-musicals about our Founding Fathers. I suspect he’ll go in an “original” direction, and the audience will feel let down.
Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I worry that Hollywood is only focused on making clones of old, reliable horses. They should be dreaming up cars. Or flying cars. It’s 2016 for God’s sake.
This brings me back around to the entertainment created by the anonymous thousands, toiling in obscurity. How are we to break through when the monolithic audience only seems to crave remixes of nostalgia? We don’t have access to the intellectual properties so beloved by now-middle-age audiences. Can we convince people to walk away from a near-infinite supply of entertainment on their phones, TVs, tablets and computers to come and spend an hour in-person with still-evolving artists? And even if we manage to get them to come to one show, what must we do to get them to return or tell a friend? How can we, with our meager resources, hope to get a run that pulls a full house longer than “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”? Is six weeks really too much to shoot for? Is everything stale after a month and a half?
We crave new, but familiar. We want to know we’ll love something before we plunk down our money and surrender our time. Because of the fickle media landscape, paid critics are falling by the wayside. There are too few to draw our attention to the non-blockbuster. As I was standing in line for “Hamilton,” I looked at all those people and wondered if they knew how hard Chicago’s artists were working and how much it would mean if they would see something in a storefront theater instead of the musical on the cover of Rolling Stone.
I totally understand the lure of the familiar. We all wish we could go back to our childhoods and feel the thrill of whatever Disney movie stole your heart. We wish we could forget our favorite shows and songs so we could experience them for the first time. At the same time, we spend years saying we don’t want to watch “Breaking Bad” because, yeah, that premise sounds awful. Then we binge-watch it, realize it’s one of the greatest shows in the history of television, then we shame anyone who says they haven’t gotten around to it. And we try telling them the premise and our friends are rightfully skeptical. And we get angry at them the way our other friends were angry at us when we wouldn’t watch.
Then we watch an episode of “Better Call Saul” and tell ourselves it’s not a bloated sloth of a show because it has two characters we really liked from “Breaking Bad.” It’s like eating day-old crust and remembering how great that pizza was the night before.
Jimmy Fallon plays board games with celebrities and people like it. You know what’s more fun than watching celebrities playing board games? YOU playing board games with your friends. You used to do that when you were a kid. You were happier then. You didn’t have bills to pay. It was 1984 and the all-male “Ghostbusters” seemed so funny and Reagan was great and your knees didn’t creak and you didn’t have to take your shoes off at the airport. Remember when you used to have fun? Yes, live vicariously through Bono playing Pictionary with Cara Delevingne and Mario Lopez and Jimmy Fallon and dream of carefree days.
I don’t know the answer to the creative rut that has swallowed the country. I don’t know how to extend the lifespans of the new and (seemingly) original content. Of course, we all stand on the shoulders of giants. But we owe it to the next generation to create new giants. The old ones are dying faster than we can replenish them.
Expect this post to be reformatted on BuzzFeed as Ten Things That Suck About Modern Pop Culture. (You won’t believe #7!)