Where's The Snap & Crackle In Pop Culture?

By | October 1, 2001 at 12:00 AM

This is a difficult transition for the entertainment community. There is a growing desire, if not need, to return to some form of business as usual, yet an uncertainty as to whether this is a viable option.

Parties and premieres are being resurrected, but companies are doing so furtively, like children worried about parental admonition. Stars are returning to the business of hyping their movies, albeit sheepishly. The TV trade wants its Emmys, yet seems bent on making the ceremony at once non-competitive and non-ceremonial. Dealmakers who have been struggling with the rules of the “new civility” are starting to return to their habitual rudeness, but in a softer voice.

Showbiz executives customarily operate with an air of certitude bordering on the arrogant, but just about everyone is sounding tentative for the moment. A few marketing men, for example, have held successful test screenings of movies with violent content – films deemed too “hot” to release at the present – and found a high degree of audience acceptance. Young audiences away from New York, they have found, seem somewhat inured to terrorism; at least the events of the “real world” may not affect their appetite in entertainment.

“So what do I do with this information?” asks one marketing veteran. It’s still risky to start releasing certain types of entertainment, he points out, because it would seem arch to exploit youthful insensitivity.

A case can be made for giving the public what it wants, some show business executives argue, albeit behind closed doors. Movies with a high violence quotient are starting to find their way back onto release schedules. The networks are moving ahead with shows like “24” and “Alias” while doctoring episodes that step over that hard-to-define line of propriety.

Our pop culture can always be counted upon to convey mixed signals, of course. Bette Midler may be stopping the show at major benefits, but Megadeth still packs them in around the country and rapper Jay-Z sits atop the album charts.

Apart from wrestling with these ambiguities, much of show business is still in semi-shock over the state of the entertainment economy.

The agency business is an interesting barometer: Dealmaking has stalled, movie start dates keep getting pushed back, and the TV business is chaotic. Many young agents who’ve known nothing but growth and bountiful opportunity suddenly confront a grim new world of margin calls, vanishing bonuses and shrinking expense accounts.

All this goes beyond a mere reality check. “I feel like a character caught in a ‘Chainsaw Massacre’ sequel,” one 31-year-old agent told me last week.

The economic blows have shattered several myths. The “old Hollywood” seemed immune to economic downturns; witness the fact that MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was the highest-paid executive during much of the Great Depression. The multinationals were supposedly going to insulate studios and networks from the impact of business cycles, but if anything, they’ve magnified that impact. Hollywood does not exactly appreciate the paradox that Vivendi, Universal’s French proprietor, is the only showbiz mega-company not to take a pounding from the stock market.

To be sure, the showbiz community is loath to whine about these economic shocks in view of the tragedies endured by New York and Washington. Some West Coast denizens harbor a palpable guilt over being so far removed from the apocalyptic events. Having been held hostage to TV coverage, they feel oddly distanced from real life with the Twin Towers seeming like images from a horror movie. Those attending public events seem eager to mute their conviviality; jokes will elicit a smile but not a laugh, and celebrities appear self-conscious about appearing to enjoy themselves.

The pontificators have been on full alert in the New York press, explaining the change in manners and mores, but their musings remain fuzzy to a West Coast perspective. The “age of irony” may be over, New Yorkers may say, but in Hollywood no one was aware that it had begun. In the blunt lexicon of show business, there is a distinct yearning to skip the weighty analyses and get on with the business – the once-prosperous business – of creating pop culture.

Hollywood doesn’t deal well with ambiguities. Nor with recessions.

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