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Michael Medved: Clueless Or Stupid?

July 28th, 2005

Tuesday’s USA Today featured an op-ed piece by film critic Michael Medved, declaring that this year’s lengthy box-office slump isn’t about crummy movies, the deteriorating multiplex experience or the boom in DVD sales, it’s about values. Really.

Before Medved became a repetitive, boring media scold, he was the co-author (with his brother Harry) of a couple of amusing books: The Fifty Worst Movies of All Time and The Golden Turkey Awards, the latter of which did much to boost the critical reevaluation of Ed Wood.

Sometime after that, he somehow became a legitimate film reviewer, and still later, transformed into a tedious, Christian crusader for moral values in Hollywood. This latest column is little more than a regurgitation of his previous screeds against Big Liberal Media.

Here’s where he gets it wrong.

First off, the box-office slump is largely a myth. Yes, ticket sales are down from 2004, which was the highest-grossing year in movie history. Even now, after a lackluster July, the difference necessary to make 2005 the second-highest-grossing year ever is a mere $147 million–in other words, a single moderate hit by modern standards. Is this a “problem” that can’t be easily explained by the vagaries of the movie release cycle? Is it even realistic to expect an industry’s fortunes to rise each and every year?

Medved quickly dismisses “purely material excuses” for the alleged slump, saying that such things as high ticket prices and availability of DVDs have applied for years. Yet, the number of DVD adopters and the availability of low-price discs has continued to increase, while simultaneously, the amount of time between theatrical and DVD windows has shrunk. Most major films come out on a shiny disc within six months of their theatrical release, usually available for about the cost of a pair of full-price movie tickets. These factors may have existed for (a few) years, but as the cost of movie tickets continues to increase and the cost of DVDs continues to drop (every Wal-Mart in America has a huge bin of $5.50 discs), perhaps it’s only now that we’ve reached a tipping point.

Naturally, Medved interprets the real cure for the Phantom Slump as the necessity of Hollywood “reconnecting with the public by adjusting the values conveyed by feature films, and replacing the industry’s shrill liberal posturing with a more balanced ideological perspective.”

Really, is that borne out by moviegoers’ tastes? Take a look at BoxOfficeMojo.com’s yearly rankings. What do people go to see? Loud action films, raucous comedies and, occasionally, family fare. (It’s worth noting that the most popular computer animated films, such as Shrek 2, tend to be a good bit edgier than Disney films of days gone by.)

The anomaly was, of course, The Passion of the Christ, which made $370 million dollars in 2004. It was released in late February, not the typical blockbuster season, and its success significantly skewed last year’s numbers. However, was this a sign that moviegoers were yearning for a “value”-added alternative, or was it the result of a canny marketing effort targetting America’s Evangelicals? With churches across the nation urging their followers to the movies and going so far as to buy out entire screenings, even a Biblical snuff film in a long-dead language can be a blockbuster.

In 2005, The Passion of the Christ was given an Easter season rerelease in a family-friendlier edit which toned down the gore. Total gross: $508,000. Now, maybe that’s because everyone who wanted to see it had already done so, or because they already bought the DVD (didn’t Medved dismiss DVD sales?), but surely there ought to be some interest in the big-screen experience which only a theater can provide. The Exorcist was rereleased in a slightly reedited format back in 2000, and grossed 78 times that of The Passion Recut.

Perhaps Medved is right that Hollywood is ignoring a “huge, wary churchgoing audience,” but then, what of other filmmakers who have tried to appeal to that crowd? The number two movie targetting the Christian audience is Jonah: A VeggieTales Movie, with $25 million. The film adaptation of the wildly popular Left Behind books grossed $4 million.

If post-election America is so much in need of a more spiritual Hollywood, why didn’t more people tune into the now-cancelled Joan of Arcadia? Why was the biggest hit of the 2004-05 TV season Desperate Housewives?

Personally, I thought Medved had a good deal more relevance back when he was introducing me to the joys of Ed Wood’s oeuvre. Hmmm, maybe he could combine his passions and write The Fifty Worst Evangelical Films of All Time?

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