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Is Classism Alive And Well At The Box Office?

Richard Nixon introduced the phrase “the silent majority” into the popular lexicon, referring to those people who weren’t out protesting or stirring up a storm, but quietly and strongly sanctioning his actions. Since then the term has become almost synonymous with “middle America” or the “the big red middle”, the clear indication that liberalism and activism were traditionally associated with the coasts of the country – specifically concentrated around Washington, New York and California. Whenever loud and vocal protests arise in these regions, expect the more conservative politicians to speak about the silent majority of decent middle-class folks in “flyover country” who don’t make big deals of things and vote with their feet. These are the people, these politicians will tell you, who save their public political expressions for the election day. And so, it would seem, this central part of the country has voted on The Social Network. And silence was certainly there in spades.

The Silent Majority turned down The Social Network's Friend Request...

Although David Fincher’s exploration of the founding of Facebook came out on top of the United States’ box office last weekend, the most interest part of the story to me was how the movie failed to do particularly well in the centre of the country:

Still, I’m surprised box office wasn’t even better despite its middling release — like $30+M given its obvious Facebook/My Space/Twitter effect. Too bad those Harvard pretenders in the pic didn’t have more sex or dress better. And they’re brooders without even being vampires. And Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg is no super-hero. But, seriously, the reason may well lie in the film’s elitism which could be keeping more mainstream audiences away. “Left coast, right coast, and a smidge of Chicago only. The rest of the country could care less,” a rival studio exec pointed out the pic’s attendance patterns to me late Friday, adding Saturday. “It’s a big city pic only.”

However, all this seems to ignore the fact that it’s a fairly universally well-liked film. The audience figures don’t even seem to match up to what I might have expected, with a somewhat older audience enjoying the film (and I would have thought the geekiness would have skewed the movie towards males):

The Social Network isn’t just a figment of hype; it logged a “B+” Cinemascore and very positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Exit surveys showed the opening weekend audience was 53% female and 55% were ages 25 and older.

So The Social Network doesn’t exactly do the business in “middle America”. What does generate a higher-than-average turnout in cinemas in the region? Apparently, Secretariat this weekend:

Predictably, Disney’s horse-racing drama Secretariat, about the 1973 Triple Crown winner, played strongly in middle America and less so in big cities. Unusually, the audience repped 65% couples and 27% families, attracting older audiences (60%) and females (54%).

In contrast to The Social Network’s 97% positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Secretariat has only 65%. However, in contrast to The Social Network’s “B+” audience score, Secretariat pulled an “A-“ CinemaScore. I’ll spare you yet another “movie reviewers are out of touch” post (as it has been done), but you have to admit that the differences are at the very least fascinating.

People were quick to suggest reasons why the film failed to secure an audience in the region:

What’s going on? This is a movie about the founding of Facebook after all, and Facebook is pretty heavily used everywhere. Facebook is not a big city internet site. But maybe to some this seemed like a movie about elitist Harvard rich kids running around in expensive shirts. Or that’s probably how it seems in the trailers. Maybe that turned them off?

The film reportedly revels in its college-bound social status-centric world-view, which many pundits would suggest could have alienated potential viewers. In fact, it has been suggested that the movie actively plays up the elitism factor of the story (perhaps too much):

Sorkin and Fincher’s 2003 Harvard is a citadel of old money, regatta blazers, and (if I am not misreading the implication here) a Jewish underclass striving beneath the heel of a WASP-centric, socially draconian culture. Zuckerberg aspires to penetrate this world in order to make fancy friends and — well, do what, exactly? Wear madras? People who arrive in the Ivy League these days do not come from black-tie dinners and wood-paneled rooms, nor do they enter such milieus after they leave. Sorkin and Fincher’s failure to discern the underlying culture of the place in the aughts may be why their portrait of today’s Cambridge, Mass., strivers felt so tediously stock and two-dimensional to me: I recognized their Harvard, but only from Love Story and The Paper Chase, not my experience. To get the university this wrong in this movie is no small matter. In doing so, “The Social Network” misunderstands the cultural ambitions, and the nature of Zuckerberg’s acumen, that made Facebook possible. Facebook didn’t rise as a scrappy force trying to conquer a patrician culture.

It’s interesting how movies can become a way of stereotyping viewers. You can make certain assumptions about a group based on their movie preferences, while also putting your own prejudices and preconceptions on display. Take, for example, the suggestion from The Independent that The Expendables was the type of movie that “middle America” was just crying out for:

As such, The Expendables aligns itself squarely with the get-out-of-my-way inclinations of a significant part of Middle America right now – an audience frustrated, in recent years, by the absence of uncomplicated heroism on screen. And commercially, at least, its timing could hardly be better.

I tend to think that comment says a lot more about the author than it does about those cinema-goers. I certainly agree that there is a fairly strong appeal in the simplicity that the movie appeared to offer, but I don’t think that appeal manifests any stronger in middle America than anywhere else. I mean, the movie unseated Inception from the top of the international box office, opening in prime position in the UK and France – France certainly couldn’t be further from the stereotype of “middle America” if it tried.

A touch of class(ism)?

Of course, the argument goes that this divide between the more “sophisticated” viewers on the coasts and those sandwiched between them is proved by the numbers themselves. Studios frequently play the edges against the centre, particularly when selling a movie they know will get a critical pasting. It’s easy to brand the slating of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra as a sign “the critical elite” are “out of touch” with “the real America”, prompting the studio to completely bypass critics and aim their marketing directly at the middle of the country, with screenings at army bases and in rural communities. And, the truth is, this strategy seems to pay off. GI Joe did better at the box office than the vast majority of people like me would suggest it has any right to. Then again, it’s quite possible that people like me are out of touch.

And yet, the story doesn’t necessarily add up. The Blind Side might play as well as one would expect it to in the region, reinforcing good old traditional values, but there’s fairly regular surprises in the region. Juno played really well in “middle America”, despite offering some fairly non-conformist ideas of what a modern family might just look like. There will always be surprises and exceptions, but I am not sure it’s appropriate to draw a hard-and-fast rule.

That said, I’m straying particularly close to political comment. And I really don’t want to drag that into it. I just find the way that even movies can be portrayed in a manner of “us and them” (even fairly politically quiet movies) slight disturbing. I wonder if perhaps we patronise those movie-goers in that block of the country, and we speak down to them. There’s an inherent assumption when they don’t go to see a movie that they don’t “get” it, or the notion that when they frequent a film that has been widely slated that they are “living down” to a stereotype. I find such ideas perhaps more harmful than helpful.

Of course there are regional variations, but I am wary of trying to sculpt these regional variations to fit a particular preconception. Hell, the people in my own household can’t agree on most films. And, truth be told, coastal and middle American viewers are well-capable of voting with their feet in agreement – sometimes on what critics might deem a smart choice, sometimes on what critics might deem a bad choice. Apparently we all (and not just Americans) went to see Transformers 2. And we all went to see The Dark Knight.

After all, we’ll all in this together. And if that sounds like a hokey sentimental message, I sincerely apologise. But only you can prevent Transformers 4.

2 Responses

  1. Well the topic certainly is more conducive for young, hip audiences (who are usually urbanites) rather than corn farmers from Nebraska ahah… The movie held up well at the box office, taking the lead in its second weekend so I don’t think it a bad, or even mildly disappointing box office hit. Now, I’m with you that there isn’t really much to look into here and that it says more about the author trying to stereotype middle America instead.

  2. Well, historically speaking no October movie has ever opened up at over $30 million, so there’s the first problem.

    And 2nd, it’s currently football season, so that pretty much wraps up everybody’s Fridays and Saturdays in Middle America. Oh, and harvest too…

    Sure Secretariat did fine here, but do you not expect people who grow up with horses in their yards to show up to a movie about one of the greatest horses of all-time?

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