Hollywood Holidays: Box-Office Blues, Paunchy Celebs

And so it’s Christmas in Los Angeles, 2004.

The gifts have been sent, the tips have been disbursed, and, as the rest of the country contemplates filing all those computer-rebate forms, the focus here has shifted to the Oscars.

Among the chatterati, the current conventional wisdom is that the best picture nominations will go to Sideways, Finding Neverland, Ray and Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. But the thinking is that statue itself will be given to Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator-not necessarily because it’s the best picture of the year, but because “It’s Marty’s time.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, two pictures whose names aren’t being bandied about for Oscars this year are The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11.

On the first count, The Passion of the Christ, the simple explanation is that Hollywood still doesn’t quite know what to make of this film. It doesn’t fit into any of Hollywood’s usual paradigms: It’s a biography, but not really; it’s a historical picture, but not quite; its audience doesn’t fit any of the usual demographics, and no one I’ve talked to out here actually seems to know anyone who paid to see it. In fact, on this last count, the picture is something of an embarrassment, or at least a source of discomfiture to Hollywood: How could we miss this audience? Who are all those people who bought tickets? And this raises the most discomforting question of all in the movie business: Not so much why did The Passion of the Christ do almost $400 million at the box office, but why don’t more Hollywood films-with some kind of regularity-rack up those numbers?

This question of “who is the audience?” is something that Hollywood is still reeling from in this Presidential election year-particularly when the results of that election took so many by surprise. Hollywood expected the election to be close, and the thinking was that a large turnout would favor the Democrats.  But the combination of the large turnout and the corresponding Bush majority has left many out here feeling confounded.

All of which brings us to the second film that no one seems to be talking about in terms of the awards: Fahrenheit 9/11. And once again, the question of this film’s success or failure-not just at the box office, but as a polemic-is something that Hollywood is still trying to come to terms with.

If one moves beyond the usual suspects-the true believers, the naïve, the innocent, the Brentwood set for whom Spanglish seemed to be made-there’s a general (although not generally acknowledged) feeling that Michael Moore has been discredited, and that the film itself was far less than the sum of its publicity: distorted, inaccurate, filled with cheap generalizations, sophomoric editing tricks and a laundry list of omissions-none of which would stand up to the true test of a documentary.   Propaganda, yes. Documentary, no. So the benchmark question then becomes: Was it a successful piece of propaganda? By Michael Moore’s lights, the film helped turn out the vote and was both an artistic and monetary success. But there’s an equal and opposite school of thought out here that believes the vote he motivated came from the other side-and that the film did little more than preach to the choir, and failed artistically in the sense that it didn’t change anyone’s mind about anything. (Alas, Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will-which, like 9/11, took first place at the leading French film festival of its time-succeeded on this count.) Either way, there’s a larger point here, particularly in terms of the Oscars and the audience: Beyond the true believers, Mr. Moore is now seen as a liability-both to much of Hollywood, and the Democratic Party.

Not surprisingly, this question of “who is the audience?” and their numbers keeps coming up in conversation. In the aftermath of the election-all the talk of values-the producer of Kill Bill: Vol. 2, Lawrence Bender, was quoted as saying that the Kill Bill sequel was a mainstream picture and appealed to red-state America. But the numbers don’t support this. With a $66 million domestic box-office take and tickets now averaging $6.25, it works out to approximately 10 million admissions in a country with a population that’s nearing 300 million people. Translation: 3 percent. So is this mainstream? Somehow, I think not.

Beyond the Oscars and audience values, there’s an additional component to the Hollywood political connection that people have been discussing lately-in this case, concerning the waning power and demystification of celebrities.

A little more than 50 years ago, when Humphrey Bogart first hit the campaign trail for Adlai Stevenson, the world was a different place. Bogart was a star-with an outsized reputation for drink and problematic wives-but according to reports at the time, he wasn’t seen as being distanced from everyday life. The perception was that he was an everyday guy, albeit a movie star.

Today, it seems that we know too much: the mind-boggling paydays, the entourages, the jets, the free clothing, the interior design of the 40,000-square-foot Bel Air estates-not to mention everything else from the latest plastic-surgery enhancements to on-camera colonoscopies. True, there seems to be an insatiable demand for this kind of stuff. But if you look closely at the celebrity magazines- Us Weekly and the Bonnie Fuller product being the best examples-they’ve gone from the pure celebration of celebrity culture to the pure destruction of it: Who’s drunk, who’s overweight, who’s impossible to work with, who’s outrageously overpaid. It’s not just that the mystery is gone-there’s something alien, and alienating about all of it. Yes, celebrities still bring out the spotlights. But it doesn’t necessarily translate into any kind of influence-particularly political influence-anymore.

Or, as someone put it to me just after Mr. Bush declared victory: “Was it worth losing the election to defend Howard Stern’s right to ask, ‘Didja get anal?'”

In the end, on this Christmas eve, the issues confronting Hollywood are no different than the issues faced by the Democratic party itself: How do we reach a wider audience? How do we stop the loss of our audience, which is down by 2 percent this year? How do we continue to spend so much money on promotion, yet fail to get a majority of Americans to try our products, just once?   

If there’s an underpinning to all of this, it’s that the country has changed radically as the population grew from 200 million to 300 million. And the challenge now is to figure out how to change with it.

Over the next two weeks, on vacation in Hawaii and Vail, Hollywood will ponder this. Then it’s back to business-maybe, or maybe not, as usual. Hollywood Holidays: Box-Office Blues, Paunchy Celebs