Saturday, 19 April 2008

When Hype is Not Warranted

The term hype has been in use since at least the Fifties. It is a word that simultaneously denotes excessive publicity and the commotion that sometimes comes with it. While the word may only date from the later half of the Twentieth Century, however, hype has existed nearly as long as there has been mass media of any kind, from the printed word to television.

Most often when hype surrounds a particular work, it is with very good reason. Margaret Mitchell's Gone With the Wind, published in 1937, became the best selling novel of its time. Mitchell even won the Pulitzer prize for the work. For that reason it was quite natural that there would be a great deal of hype surrounding David O. Selznick's film adaptation, from the casting of Scarlet O'Hara to the film's complex production. It was quite naturally expected to be huge at the box office (and it was, becoming the biggest selling film of all time for many decades to come). One cannot say that the hype which surrounded Gone With the Wind was not warranted.

Another example of hype being well deserved also comes from the world of film. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the biggest film of its time. It was quite natural then that there should be a good deal of hype surrounding its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. And while Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back did not do as well as the first film, it was still a phenomenal box office success. Today many regard it as the best of the series. Again, it would seem that Em>Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back deserved its hype.

While many movies, TV shows, and books do deserve the hype that they receive, there are other times when a particular upcoming work receives a great deal of hype for apparently no good reason. A current example which comes to my mind is Sex in the City: the Movie. The past few months have seen article after article on the film. And in many instances the writers give the impression that Sex in the City: the Movie will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, movie of the summer. It is not unusual for it to be mentioned in the same breath as Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Speed Racer, and The Dark Knight. My only question is, "Why?"

There can be no doubt that Sex in the City was one of the most popular shows on HBO. And the show most certainly has a loyal following. That having been said, I do not think that following is large enough to turn it into a smash hit at the box office. For one thing, it seems to me that Sex in the City was always one of those shows that appealed much more to women than men. Every single fan of Sex in the City I know personally is a woman. Not one man I know personally ever watched the show regularly, and all of them were either indifferent to it or outright hated it. From the outset, then, Sex in the City: the Movie will have an audience composed almost entirely of women. And, unfortunately for that film, it takes appeal to both sexes for movies to generally be big box office hits.

For another thing, I am not even sure that Sex in the City is that popular among women. Of the women I know personally who have seen the show, they seem to be divided about 50/50 as to the series. On one hand, my first best friend's wife and my second best friend are both indifferent to the show. On the other hand, my sister loved it. If the women I know are any indication, then, only 50% of all American women have any interest in Sex in the City. That certainly does not bode well for Sex in the City: the Movie.

That having been said, all of this is not taking into account that the movie is being released May 30, 2008. This will put it in competition with Iron Man (releasing May 2, 2008), Speed Racer (releasing May 9, 2008), The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (releasing May 16, 2008), and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (releasing May 22, 2008). Given this sort of competition and its somewhat limited audience, I suspect the best that Sex and the City: the Movie can hope for is modest box office success on its first weekend, possibly ranking #2 in the top ten movies for the weekend. Of course, I doubt it will even do that. The question then remains why the movie is getting as much hype, if not more hype, than many of the summer's obvious blockbusters?

Of course, unwarranted hype is not limited to movies. It occurs in the medium of television as well. Early in its run, Ally McBeal received an enormous amount of exposure in the press. The character of Ally McBeal even made the controversial June 25, 1998 cover of Time, appearing alongside feminists such as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. The show also won Emmy awards and SAG awards, as well as receiving several nominations for various other awards. Despite the intense publicity the series received and the awards it won, however, Ally McBeal was not a smash hit in the ratings. Although it was one of Fox's more popular shows, for most of its run it rarely ranked in the top 25 shows for any given week. And while it did win awards, many critics were not particularly fond of the show, finding the title character annoying. Even worse, there were feminists who found the character of Ally McBeal an insult to women. When the show's ratings fell towards the end of its run, they did so spectacularly. These days one rarely, if ever, hears Ally McBeal mentioned except in discussions of television in the Nineties. Again, one has to wonder what the reason for all the hype was.

Literature having always been considered a more respectable medium than film or television, one would think it would be immune to hype. This is not the case, and sometimes that hype is unwarranted. The textbook example of a writer who was overly hyped is perhaps the late Norman Mailer. It seemed that every new book Mailer had written was published with a good deal of fanfare. He won the Pulitzer, among other awards. His novel The Naked and the Dead and his nonfiction work The Executioner's Song can be considered classics. There are those who count him as the most influential writer of his generation. And yet, with the exception of The Naked and the Dead, nearly all of Mailer's books received mixed reviews. While many of his books sold well, there were many that did not. Indeed, today Mailer's books simply do not sell very well. His book The Armies of the Night, for which he won the Pulitzer in 1969, only sold 3000 copies from 2006 to November 2007. This can be contrasted with the works of Kurt Vonnegut. His novel Cat's Cradle sold 130,000 copies in the same time period. Slaughterhouse Five sold 280,000. The question then remains why so much publicity would often surround the works of Mailer, even more than the works of Vonnegut, a writer who was not only critically acclaimed but adored by the public as well.

It is probably impossible to determine all of the factors which cause certain works to receive a good deal of hype which they ultimately do not deserve. And I rather suspect that the reasons behind it vary from work to work. That having been said, I think that to some degree there could be a certain amount of snobbery which results in some movies, TV shows, or books being hyped more than other movies, TV shows, or books that might actually be more deserving. This may certainly hold true for Norman Mailer. While I have only read a few of his books, I can say that they were generally well written and well thought out. I still think Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller are better writers, but I must give Norman Mailer credit where credit is due.

Of course, it is difficult for me to see snobbery at work with regards to such things as Sex in the City and Ally McBeal. I always thought of the former as simply a half hour dirty joke written for women and the latter as a superficial show with little depth at all. That having been said, there could be an explanation for why the cognoscenti in television would love both shows. Sex in the City centred on urban, single, working women, three of whom were nearing middle age and one of whom definitely was middle aged--this at a time when very few shows focused on urban, single, working women of any age. The show often had serialised story lines and even flirted with drama at a time when most sitcoms did not do so. It also dealt with issues that at the time were considered socially relevant. While there were those who found the show rather shallow in its treatment of single women in the Nineties, I can still understand why the series might appeal to many television critics and reporters in the entertainment industry, particularly women. There would then seem to be a bit of a snob fact at work with Sex in the City. I believe the same could hold true with Ally McBeal. Like Sex in the City it centred on a single, urban, working woman. And like Sex in the City it dealt with socially relevant theme. It also featured serialised story lines at a time when such were a rarity on television. I can then also understand how the show would then appeal to the cognoscenti in the television industry.

The snob appeal of some movies, TV shows, and books then explains why they are sometimes hyped even if there is no great clamour over them among the general public. It is a case of these movies, TV shows, and books appealing to a few critics and reporters who lose their objectivity and somehow believe that these movies, TV shows, and books should then appeal to the vast majority of Americans. I can guarantee that when Sex in the City: the Movie loses the weekend box office to Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, there will be those in the media who will proclaim it a box office disappointment and ponder why it did not perform better. What they will miss, of course, is that all the hype around the film was unwarranted and it will only be performing as well as is to be expected.


d. chedwick bryant said...

Hype or no hype--I wouldn't go out of my way to see Sex in The City the movie, or a Sopranos movie--I'd wait til they hit the small screen - wouldn't it make more sense for them to be HBO movies? I find watching the re-runs of these shows impossible. A movie would feel like a re-hash to me. But maybe a 'true fan' would love them on the big screen.

d. chedwick bryant said...

PS I will go to see the new indiana Jones movie though.

Jeremy Barker said...

It seems to me that the majority of entertainment is based around hype, hype that is used to sell consumers products/shows/movies/books that they wouldn't otherwise be interested in.

The latest Entertainment Weekly spoke about the Oscar race beginning, referencing films that the titles haven't even bee released yet. It's all about creating a market and convincing people that they are interested. And sometimes it works and sometimes you get Snakes on a Plane.