The beliefs and values of the American people are almost constantly changing. Going through American history reveals how the American culture has gone through changes ever since the days of the American revolution. Constant change is a staple of the American culture. The theme of acknowledging change in the American culture was addressed in multiple sources throughout the stimulus packet. In 1971, during his “Address to the Nation on Labor Day” Nixon had to address a change in workforce to reinstall a sense of dignity from work.
Even a recent article by Derek Thompson, senior editor at The Atlantic, argued that this next generation of American workers is shifting from jobs that are done to pay the bills into an age where the majority of people have a career involving their passion project that involves craftsmanship and artistry. One of the challenges that a constantly changing culture creates is how to find an accurate indicator for what the American culture truly believes and values at the moment. With a concept this dynamic and this influential, it is important to be able recognize what trends and implications there could be from each new change.
An accurate indicator of this magnitude has to be a huge influencer of the mainstream media while still being able to reach the smallest areas of the American society. The film industry is one of the few industries that meets all this criteria necessary to serve as this reliable measuring stick. This leads to the question: what does the American film industry reflect about the culture of America? The popularity and box office earnings of the American film industry indicate, both historically and currently, the values of the American culture, which presently includes consistency or familiarity and political congruence.
First off, the political stance of a movie or the filmmakers behind the movie is reflected by who will see the movie and earnings of the film. It may seem obvious to say that people like to see movies about things that they agree with, but that logic is one of the cruxes of the movie industry. For example, The Journal of American Studies wrote about how Christian movies have created a successful niche in the film industry by relying on the comparatively small market of Evangelical Christians to be their sole audience for the film (Russell).
It is generally true that Christian films do not get reviewed favorably or make lots of records at the box office, but the niche of Christian movies survives nevertheless. Christian films get made because Americans like to support projects that promote what they believe, but it is not only in Christian films that this is present. A poll conducted by The Hollywood Reporter states that people who identify strongly with a political party not only avoid movies that contradict their views, but they will avoid movies with actors that are outspoken about their contrary beliefs.
Most specifically, Republicans said they avoid movies with Sean Penn, Whoopi Goldberg, or Oprah Winfrey. Democrats were less likely to avoid conservative movie stars, but both Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger were said to be avoided by liberals (Bond). If it is true that movie stars are avoided because of their political stance, then the popularity and earnings of those stars’ movies would be able to accurately serve as an indicator for if much of the American movie-going audience does or does not agree with them.
While it is true that it is hard to draw a direct correlation between political beliefs of an actor and his or her film’s box office results, it is still clear that there is some relationship between the political reputation of an actor and the audience’s perception of them; therefore, the political congruence of actor and audience can still serve to be one of many factors that caused the film to gain the level of popularity it did. Also, it is possible for films to have great persuasive influence on their audience members.
A study by Michelle C. Pautz, an associate professor at the University of Dayton, asked college students questions about their views on the government before and after seeing the movies Argo and Zero Dark Thirty, and the results revealed that, “… 20 to 25 percent of the participants changed their opinion – and generally more favorably – on a variety of questions about the government” (Guida). Even though 20-25 percent may not seem like a huge portion of audiences, it can still make it so that even more of the beliefs of audiences coincide with the movies they watch.
So, not only do people seek out movies and actors that agree with their opinions, but movies can actually change people’s opinions so that they agree. It is clear that there is plenty to be learned about the stance of American culture from the opinions that are portrayed in films and the public’s response to them. Secondly, analyzing the box office earnings of the American film industry indicates that Americans value consistency and familiarity. One of the first things that most people look at when trying to decide whether or not to see a movie is what actors are starring in the film.
In a study completed by The Journal of Cultural Economics, researchers tried to measure how much replacing an “average” movie star with a “top” movie star would affect the box office earnings of the film. The study found that “Replacing three average stars with three top stars increases box office revenues by $49,318,858 if the budget and number of screens is accounted for… ” (Nelson). What about top actors makes them worth 49 million more dollars in box office revenue? While it is true that the most popular actors probably bring with them better acting ability, that is not always the case.
Unknown actors have delivered some of the best performances in movies before and the most popular actors have been in bad movies before, but the top-tier actors are guaranteed to bring a sense of familiarity with them. When people see an actor that they are very familiar with for the most part they already know what to expect. But actors are not the only way to bring familiarity into a film. When looking at all the films released in a given year, like 2001 for example, a third of the movies released grossed less than 100,000 dollars (Sinberg).
For a frame of reference, the big franchise blockbuster films can make over 50 million dollars in their opening weekend alone without breaking a sweat, so the idea that a portion of movies as large as a third of all releases make less than 100,000 dollars is significant. Once you look away from the major studio releases there is a whole segment of the movie industry that is pretty much completely unknown, and Americans are not likely to spend their hardearned money on something completely unfamiliar. Unknown films are not the only aspect of the movie industry that can bring about uncertainty.
For example, the MPAA rating that a film receives gives the public a set of expectations about the tone and content of the movie. A study from The Journal of Business revealed that R-rated movies make on average less money than every other major MPAA rating (De Vany). The Rrating gives filmmakers more freedom to cover a wider array of subjects and tones than are available to G, PG, or PG-13 rated films. With that freedom there is a greater unpredictability that audiences are likely to shy away from. A sense of familiarity to the audience, whether it comes in the form of an MPAA rating or an actor, leads to a willingness to spend their money.
Lastly, changes in the American culture has been reflected by the film industry throughout the history of film. Going back through the trends of the 50s and 60s in film reveals how, even then, film and culture had a responsive relationship. Shyon Baumann of The American Sociological Review examined how movies in the 50s and 60s started to be perceived differently as a result of cultural changes that she identified as, “The Advent of Television” and “The Increase in Post Secondary Education” (Baumann). The two cultural changes that Baumann identifies spark a change from simply a form of entertainment to more of an expression of art.
Movies became a step above the simple past-time entertainment that was found on television, and people opened up to seeing deeper and more intricate stories expressed through film because of the shift in education. The increase in education led to an increase in higher-education jobs which had such an impact that Nixon addressed it in his “Address to the Nation on Labor Day” when he said, “… no job is menial in America if it leads to self-reliance, self-respect, and individual dignity. ” The cultural changes continued on after the 60s.
Terry Christensen, professor and Chair Emeritus of the Political Science Department at San Jose State University, looked at changes in the history of film in the book Projecting Politics: Political Messages in American Films. Christensen summarized each decade in film reflected American politics of the time. The 70s were characterized by “Cynicism, Paranoia, War and Anticapitalism” while the 80s were listed as “New Patriotism, Old Reds, and a Return to Vietnam in the Age of Reagan” (Haas). The paranoia and war of the 70s that was due to the high tensions of vietnam and the cold war led to an increase in suspense and thriller films.
The 80s films reflected the new patriotism of Americans by bringing the actionadventure genre to the forefront with an emphasis on the strong action hero. Looking at how the trends in American history coincides with trends in film history clearly reveals how movies are indicative of American values. After looking at trends throughout the past 70 years of American film history, it is clear that movies have a direct relationship with the landscape of the time period, so answering the question, “What does the film industry indicate about American culture? ” would vary by decade.
When evaluating that question today, it is revealed that Americans value familiarity and political correspondence. All of this is made clear when assuming that the film industry is an accurate indicator for the American culture, but the film industry is not perfect when it comes to accuracy of American society. It is true that the average film goer is 19 years old, and comparatively few older people will be found in movie audiences (Riesman). This is important to note because not everything that movies reflect about American culture is true about all of American culture.
With that being said, movies still serve as one of the most accurate indicators for American beliefs because of the wide reach and the cultural prevalence that movies provide. Also, when comparing the profits of the movie industry to that of the other entertainment industries like the music industry, then the movie industry is still dwarfs the profits of the music industry (Moore). At the end of the day, the American film industry is still one of the best indicators of the beliefs of the American culture, and those beliefs can be traced throughout history up into the current American beliefs.