Good quality? Nah. It's the hype that matters


It happened last week while I was sitting around talking with my 11-year-old son, who positively never tires of "The Simpsons."

Me: "We'll have to see 'The Simpsons Movie' that weekend when it comes out, huh?"

Dylan: "Yeah, for sure. Like on that Friday. I can't believe it's finally happening. I've been waiting my whole life for this."

As I'm smiling at his response, he inquires, "How do you think it's gonna do? I mean, like how much money?"

"Why does that matter?" I wonder aloud.

Dylan: "Because I want it to make a lot so people will think it's good," comes the reply. "Doesn't it have to do like a big first weekend? Like $50 million or something?"

And that, I decided, pretty much said it all. Here was a child who has not yet hit adolescence playing the unwitting role of boxoffice analyst. The truth is, this kind of Hollywood fiscal awareness in a prepubescent lad -- pretty much unfathomable 15 years ago -- makes perfect sense during these knee-jerk, insta-verdict times in which we live.

Consumers have been conditioned to believe that success and quality are officially indistinguishable from one another. If your movie is perceived to have bombed at the boxoffice, the judgment of your project's artistic merits tanks right along with it not only in the critical community but, indeed, the greater public mind.

As we've come to learn, feature films have only that first Friday night in theaters to make their case before the assessment machine begins churning. Primetime TV series get two episodes, maybe three (if the producer wields sufficient influence). Anything that disappears from sight quickly is generally dismissed as a lousy idea from the get-go, no matter how well-made or entertaining. No one wants to back a loser, even one that was championed last week.

It's been this way in Hollywood for some time, particularly since the weekend theatrical top 10 moneymakers went mainstream, bringing the industry's cash-equals-significance mindset to the masses.

But now this same conditional values system has seeped into popular culture in the way the media separates the dazzlers from the duds. Take the iPhone: built on a tsunami of hype, venerated by the earliest users as a superlative, if not quite perfect, piece of gadgetry. The lines for the thing on that first Friday went around the block. All hail iPhone!

Then, 10 days later, kaboom! The story that the iPhone had sold "only" 270,000 units in its first 30 hours in release drew headlines such as "iPhone Sales Disappointing" and "Has Apple Struck Out With iPhone?" -- this, for a device that had moved out of Apple and AT&T stores at the rate of 150 units every minute during those first few hours. Why the pessimism? Because a bunch of analysts had pulled prediction numbers like 500,000 during opening weekend out of thin air.

The message was that the product the press had hyped to the sky didn't match the overzealous projections.

This should tell us that not only are we the least patient culture in world history, we've also allowed our preoccupation with commerce and mass taste to inform our moviegoing, TV viewing and purchasing decisions, as if appeal and worth were dictated by the level of popular acceptance achieved and not the other way around.

In the new century, sadly, we've swapped our objectivity and our independence to be part of a good opening weekend.