(One reason) why we need films that people don’t watch, or: Why David Cameron Is An Idiot.

Sorry, this is an ill-formed ramble. But, let’s just leap into the flow:

Apparently, saith our glorious leader, british films need to concentrate on making more popular films, rather than weird, arty, or critically-acclaimed films. British films are subsidised – not just (slightly) by the government, but by the national lottery – so it’s unjust to use that money for films that The People won’t like.

This, frankly, is why I’m a liberal elitist and not a genuine democrat. It’s not that I don’t like The People, or that I think they have bad taste, or that I don’t see why everything should geared toward pandering to them, although all these things are probably true to some degree. No, it’s that I cannot understand this lunatic mass-delusion that makes it possible to talk about The People (or to talk in ways that assume the existence of The People) at all.

The People do not want anything. Not only are The People in reality divided into a majority and a minority on every issue, but it is not even possible to say what the majority opinion is on most issues. The laws of psephology do not permit it. On anything more complicated that a genuinely completely unambiguously binary yes/no issue, it is not mathematically possible to reduce public opinion, even majority opinion, to a single answer, or even to a single list of answers. It’s the equivalent of depicting a globe on a flat surface – you have to choose a projection, and every projection is faithful in some respects and misleading in others. Once you shrink the population down to The People, or even to The Majority, therefore, the opinions of this mythical entity become incoherent (they may, for instance, often prefer A to B, and B to C, and yet simultaneously prefer C to A), and prone to rapid fluctuation depending on exactly what question is asked and what projection is used to display the answer.

The People is a myth, and it is a damaging myth. Of course, we are all The People, so we can all agree that everything should be as The People wants it to be? But it can easily be shown that in many cases the outcome seemingly preferred by The People can be an outcome not desired by any individual or subgroup within that electorate. When we make binary, either-or one-off decisions, this may be an unavoidable necessity – if half the population wants to kill someone and the other half wants to make him king, then an electoral system that settles on the consensus option of just leaving the poor guy alone may not completely please anyone, but may be the best option available.

But most of society does not work like that, and it is damaging to society, damaging to us as individuals, that marketers and politicians conspire to seduce us into acting as though this type of decision was truly typical. This is where the idea of popular and unpopular film comes into play. Because here’s the rub: very, very few unpopular films ever get made.

That’s right, almost all films are popular. They’re just popular with different audiences. Of course, some audiences are larger than other audiences, and maybe they need more films than smaller audiences. But has anyone complained of a dearth of popular films? No. Could most of the small-budget films that are derided as ‘unpopular’ ever have been smash-hit summer blockbusters? No. And yet, in all areas of life, marketers seduce their companies into chasing after the biggest audience available, while politicians sanctify it with an anti-elitist piety that makes “films that people don’t want to watch” a stamp of moral damnation on those decadent masturbatory film-makers. Except, of course, that people DO want to watch those films; what politicians mean when they say that is “films that THE PEOPLE don’t want to watch”. But The People is a myth. It’s a statistical illusion.

So there are two big points to be made. The first is the obvious one: that if everything caters to the majority, the minority will have nothing. If everyone tries making a blockbuster, the people who like intelligent, quirky critically-acclaimed films will be much less happy, while the people who like blockbusters will probably not be noticeably happier. The strength of preference must be noted alongside the prevalence of that preference. The second, deeper, point is that the majority itself is an illusion. The film that sells the most need not, in practice, be the one that The Majority likes the most, but simply the film that more people find tolerable. That doesn’t mean that anybody, let alone a majority, actually prefers it to anything! If you put together a film with a passable romantic plot, vaguely amusing humour, some mildly impressive special effects, a couple of slightly exciting action scenes… well, you’ll get a lot of people who think it’s worth a watch. If you go by how many people watch the film, the film is a great success. And indeed, a lot more people like it than like a pure romance or a pure comedy, because it appeals to everything. This is the sort of film The People wants to watch.

But if films are all popular films, if they all appeal to everybody but not very much, everybody loses out. If we have ten films in the world and they’re all this sort of popular box-office success, then everybody who want a great action film is disappointed, everyone who wants a great romance is disappointed, and so on and so forth. If, instead, we had ten films and one was a great action film, one was a great romance, one was a great comedy, and so on, and yes, including one that isn’t great in any respect but has crossover appeal, for people who really value crossover appeal, then everybody would be happier. Everybody would be given something closer to what they want. And yet, if we measure people’s opinions via boxoffice numbers, we’ll find that The People always votes for breadth over depth. This is a perplexing paradox, until we realise that The People is an illusion! The Majority is an illusion! The “opinions” of “cinemagoers” are largely an artifact of the process by which the opinions of individual ticket-buyers have been aggregated. More broadly: if, as a society, we believe that decisions should be made by voting with money, we will always make decisions that reflect this biased aggregation method. We are using money as an election method without considering its flaws – and all election methods are flawed.

To say it again: election methods (including ‘give The People more of what they’re buying’) that favour compromise, mediocrity, inoffensiveness, broad acceptability, and shallow appeal to as many people as possible, are fine. They’re great. If we’re holding a poll when we can only do one thing, these methods are great way to decide what that thing is. If we can only have one film in existence, sure, let’s have a film that nobody loves but everybody can enjoy to some degree. BUT THE WORLD DOES NOT NORMALLY WORK LIKE THAT. Most decisions are not this sort of all-or-nothing zero-sum only-one-bullet-left-in-the-gun decision. There is not only one film. There are thousand, tens of thousands, millions of films. Approaching each film with a decision-making process based on what you would do if it were the only film in the world will not yield an optimum distribution of film-types. The optimum film provision would be the provision that yields the greatest satisfaction overall, not the provision that yields the greatest satisfaction per film. Given that individuals do not share the same preferences, the highest overall satisfaction will likely be provided by a set of films that are all, individually, less popular than they might be, but that together appeal to all parts of the market. The best outcome is where 90% of fans can find a film they think is 90% brilliant, not where 100% of fans consider 100% of films to be 51% satisfactory. [Of course, it would be better still to have both be true!].

Of course, we can’t expect the free market and private industry to see the big picture – they make decisions product by product. We largely can’t, these days, even expect them to be satisfied making a profit from a solid and loyal customer base by making products that have strong appeal. No, private industry will always chase the imperial purple, every company seeking the biggest dollar, trying not only to survive but to win. In some ways, that’s a good thing, although it’s bad for most companies (picking a 90% chance of being profitable but mediocre is better than picking a 5% chance of being the biggest company in the world and a 95% chance of going bust, in terms of how many companies survive), and it’s bad for the market as a whole (because it guarentees volatility). But, it’s in some ways a good thing – it ensures competition, which raises standards. But it’s an utterly crap way to satisfy genuine public demand (rather than the manufactured and statistical Demand of the People). The only saving grace is that some people in industry are still human beings, and make products that suit their own tastes – which fortuitously will sometimes match the tastes of consumers.

This should be where government steps in. The market gives distorted incentives (distorted if everybody tries to ‘win’; but even if everyone tries only to ‘survive’, the incentives will be confused and unclear, because the market cannot (and should not!) organise itself efficiently), so the government should step in to rebalance the incentives. The government should ensure that films can get made that are not necessarily the next Titanic, but that together leave no cinemagoer behind. No Cinemagoer Left Behind! Instead, the government wants to focus funding on “popular” films – in other words, it wants to amplify the existing distortion of incentives. This is idiotic.

There are of course many other reasons, eg.:

- we don’t always know in advance which films will ‘win’, and sometimes the ‘unpopular’ films break out and do well, so only funding the films politicians think will be popular is basically funding ‘films that look identical to other films that were popular’. That’s even more skewed than even a pure lowest-denominator approach would be;

- some films are better than others and more deserving of existence;

- even if everybody did genuinely prefer to be given one particular product, it would still be in their interests to have other products provided as well, because then they are able to make meaningful choices. It’s better to try many foods and decide you prefer what you grew up with than to be only ever allowed to eat one food your whole life. You don’t meaningfully ‘prefer’ it unless there are alternatives. And even if you’re very cynical and don’t believe in free will at all, at least giving people options lets them feel as though they’ve made a meaningful choice! [If pornography didn't exist, all the virtuous puritans who'd rather watch paint dry would suddenly no longer be making a virtuous decision, and could no longer feel superior - oh, won't somebody please think of the puritans?]

But, one elitist argument per day is enough, I think.

Oh, wait, no, one other reason why the “the government shouldn’t fund films nobody wants to watch” argument is idiotic: what else will they fund? Sure, if people want to say “we can’t afford film funding at the moment, there are more important things to spend money on, like health and education”, that’s respectable. I can accept that line of thought. But instead, it seems we’re to spend the money on popular films instead. That is, we’re going to spend money making films that would have been profitable anyway. If a filmmaker can convince the government that their film is going to be massively popular, shouldn’t they already be off convincingly private-sector backers that their film is a good investment? Unless we’re thinking of releasing the government-backed films for free, we’re just going to be crowding out private investment, which is stupid AND inefficient!


One thought on “(One reason) why we need films that people don’t watch, or: Why David Cameron Is An Idiot.

  1. nac says:

    as i profoundly dislike films which The People enjoy, henceforth i formally renounce my Personhood

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