Tuesday, 29 April 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #88: Grand Theft Audience

This week marks the beginning of two things.

The release of Iron Man, which kicks off the Spring-Summer movie blockbuster season, but I'm not going to talk about that.

What I'm going to talk about is the other big news in pop culture.

The release of Grand Theft Auto IV, the latest instalment in the ever growing and occasionally controversial line of video games from Rockstar Games. The Grand Theft Auto games evolved from a fairly simple game of automobile theft into more elaborate story-lines where the player assumes a character who is either out for revenge, to rise through the ranks of the underworld, or both, and then steals, shoots, or sneaks to their goal.

I guess the best way to sum it up, is that the Grand Theft Auto games are essentially interactive gangster movies. The kind of story that would have starred Charles Bronson, or Lee Marvin in their prime. Except the player is the star.

Now while I enjoy the occasional video game, I'm not very good at them, and I'm not an expert on the subject of games. In fact, my computer game glory days involved Zaxxon, which probably reveals that I was hatched from the primordial ooze sometime early during the Pleistocene Epoch.

What I do know is how GTA-IV is causing a lot of worry and what would be the furrowing of brows, if those brows weren't frozen stiff by Botox. You see studio executives are worried that the all powerful ticket buying 18-35 male demographic will be too glued to their XBox 360s to go to the movies. And with 100 hours of free flow multi-player game play, they have a reason to be worried.

You see, the video game market is whittling down at that all important disposable income of the average Joe which is the life's blood of popular culture, and they're specifically taking it away from movies.

Now some experts say that the main reason is that games are interactive. Instead of sitting down and being told the fate of characters, gamers control the fates of their characters. Well made games have a myriad of combinations that can be expanded by the choices of the players, and more free form "sandbox" games take that to the exponential level. That's a hell of a lot more bang for your buck, than 90+ minutes of watching stuff happen.

But there's another, and I think more relevant reason for the success of games.

In games the audience still matters.

The game industry still follows the simple business plan of making a product and selling that product to people. The success or failure of a video game company is based on their ability to connect with fans on that all important emotional level.

That's where the movie business has fumbled.

Sure, they'll still put out the occasional crowd pleasing blockbuster, but when was the last time people were as sincerely excited about the release of a Hollywood movie as gamers are about Halo 3 or GTA-IV?

The movie business these days is not about the simple co
ncept of making movies that make money by connecting with the audience. Nowadays the priorities of studios involve obscure European tax shelters, arcane accounting regulations, formulating complex contracts, litigation, scoring a sweet seat at the most fashionable political fund-raiser, as well as the starlet with the new breasts paid for by the company expense account, and other incidentals...

The movies and the audience are way down at the bottom of that list of priorities. Somewhere below remembering to sign the birthday card for Jerry the guard at the studio gate, and tipping Pablo the gardener for Christmas.

Another factor is the simple fact that games are made by gamers for gamers.

The people who make the best computer games are people who play and enjoy computer games.

That sort of blissful joy in the act of film-making as love making hasn't really been seen since Quentin Tarantino first burst onto the movie scene in the 90s. And I'm pretty sure that he even his legendary enthusiasm has probably been dampened by now, thanks to the soul sucking tendency of what Rod Serling once called that "hideous bitch goddess" of Hollywood.

Right now the prevailing attitude in Hollywood is not a desire to tell great stories that the audience will love, it's trying to suck up enough to people in positions of power, so you can make on more film, to suck up to the same people, to make one more film... etc...etc....

And those people in power aren't in the movie business because they love movies, or even business. They want the glamour, the fame, the status, getting away with playing with other people's money, and more importantly, the power.

Now all those things can be achieved by being successful with audiences, however, that takes work. You have to go outside of the Axis of Ego to find out what people want, and it's much easier to just kiss up to all the other rich folks in your neighbourhood.

And when those folks in the neighbourhood control the media, it creates a dangerous bubble that isolates the average Hollywood folk from the common people almost as much as a North Korean political prisoner in solitary confinement.

That bubble doesn't yet exist in the field of computer games. The makers of games work in worlds of fantasy, but live in the real world.

The same cannot be said of Hollywood.

And that's why it's costing them.


  1. And the libs don't like it. Not too long ago, NPR ran a story wondering when video games would "takcle politics." From the liberal, anto-war, anti-Bush perspective, of course. They mentioned one game along those lines, and sort of bemoaned how it failed miserably, and quoted a gamer as not being comfortable gunning down US soldiers. The economic politics of say, Sim City (high taxes discourage growth. indeed.) were never mentioned. Very stupid, very whiney story. So, typical NPR, really.

  2. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=89631345