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Let’s Not Do This Again

Aug. 1, 2023
Have we become a contented and simplistic civilization, or we have elevated cynical and unmotivated people to lead us?

Incredibly, a production budget of $145.2 million and a marketing budget of $150 million combined to make a total of $155 million over three days for a peculiar pink movie about the grown-up fantasies of pre-teen girls. Who can say how much this project ultimately will take in, but already it’s hailed as a blockbuster. So, because there is no accounting for the tastes of the 12.8 million ticket-buyers who want to experience that pre-teen fantasy, it surely means there will be at least two reruns of the same presentation.

It isn’t only ridiculous ideas that get plumped and presented this way. Another, quite different film opened at the same time, with a production budget of $100 million and a marketing budget to match that. We’re informed it drew 5.8 million ticket buyers and had a gross income of $82.4 million. Based on a subject of historical significance and current relevance, it’s certain to collect the award nominations that signify a different sort of validation – and so we’re due for more of this formula too. I don’t know how a three-hour expose of thermonuclear science and the people who love/hate it can have left anything untold, but we’ll find out because this too is now a recipe that will get repeated, hoping to be rewarded.

What gets rewarded, gets repeated. What gets punished, gets avoided,” according to the rule of behavioral change. So from the movies’ investors’ point of view it’s critical to know how they will get rewarded. If a movie makes $155 million in three days, then they will make and remake that movie. Is there any clearer way to understand why the Spiderman tale has been reproduced 12 times, or that performers now in their 70s or 80s are brought back to add marketing interest to stories they first inhabited 40 or more years ago?

If I were a reliable consumer of these entertainment products – I’m not – then the reply to this criticism would be simple: “Go read a book! No one is going to make you watch Star Wars Episode XII.” In any case, there’s no clear proof that audiences are demanding all these repeats and revitalizations – simply that they will buy them in the absence of other choices. A project is announced and the marketing begins.

And it’s not only entertainment products that get regurgitated. Computers, phones, and other high-technology devices are invariably knocked-off once some feature or function proves to have some marketability. Every fast-food chain has a chicken sandwich you must try.

Most discouraging of all is the way this predicament shapes public discourse. And politics. Americans have been having the same arguments – immigration, crime, gun ownership, environmental regulation - for over three decades. Within the year, we will be involved in a new presidential election campaign, seemingly to repeat the one we endured three years ago.

It’s possible that all this recycling is an effect of “analytics:” investors and promoters seeking evidence to back up their stakes have access to vast resources of research data they can use to fine tune their programs, building messages and products that can hit all the right notes for an audience willing to listen. That would be a variation of something that philosophers have long noticed and consultants have labeled “paralysis by analysis.” If the last three installments in a product series were successful, why stop now?  

I think there’s more to the problem. I note that another movie was released in recent weeks, with a budget reported to be $14.5 million and a marketing program based mainly on social media. This has resulted in revenues of more than $100 million in about four weeks – an admirable profit that other investors will envy and none will try to emulate. They want more certainty. And there are not enough creative minds with new ideas to replicate that formula.

Perhaps we have become a very contented and simplistic civilization, or maybe we have elevated a very cynical and unmotivated class to lead us. “What gets rewarded, gets repeated... etc.” In the creative arts, in technology and business, and in our political process over and over again we give the signals that indicate we want more of the same. And we get it.