Sunday, December 14, 2014

YES Country For Old Men?

It's Not As Bad As It Looks--Honest ...
A set of data points:
  • In 1984 Terminator starred Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Biehn. They were 37 and 28 years old respectively. 
  • Stallone, in Rambo (First Blood Part II) was an older 39 years of age.
  • In 1988, Bruce Willis was 33 years old, climbing around through the sky scraper in Die Hard (gas was 77 cents a gallon!).
  • Gibson was 31 in Lethal Weapon. The scholarly Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) was 39 in 1981.
Another set:
  • On IMDB's Action-Movies link, 40% of the top-10 reference franchises from the 80's or before (Star Wars, Terminator, Jurassic Park, and James Bond--which may not count as it is (a) earlier and (b) really re-booted--on the other hand, Daniel Craig is 46). These are all original movies coming out next year or the year after.
  • Two major old-school (action-star shoots everyone) movies John Wick and The Equalizer came out this year. Wick stars Keanu Reeves. The Equalizer, Denzel Washington. Denzel is 60 years old. Keanu is 50. Both were top-drawer movies with intentions to start a franchise.
  • The Expendables III's headliners are all north of 50 (save Jason Statham at 47). The average age of the cast in Expendables II was 52. The median: 51 (which was Van Damme's age). Yes, the point was that they were kind of old--but the movie was no joke: it was a for-real, high-end action flick designed to appeal to 18-24 R-rated action movie fans. Expendables III cut violence to PG-13 and Stallone decided that was a big mistake and would never happen again.
  • Tom Cruise is still a high-billing action star with cutting edge sci-fi roles as he crests 50 years of age (granted, he could pass for 30 with his shirt off).
A final point: In 2000 the New York times created a second NYT best-sellers list because there were complaints that Harry Potter was crowding out more "adult titles" by holding onto the top-slots for so long. In 2008 those titles dropped off entirely for the first time in 10 years.

What Happened To Millennials?
The Millennials, usually judged to be born between 1981 and 1996, would have been too young to have seen many of the R-rated 80's action movies of the 80's and early 90's in the theater--but they have been able to catch up on those mega-stars in the theaters as they age.

While there are some counter-arguments (Christian Bale is a leading action man at 37, Captain America's Chris Evans is 33) The Omnivore thinks we can agree that attempts to make Shia LaBeouf, aged 28, the next action hero for a new generation have pretty much collapsed. 

Let's also note that an awful lot of hot properties today are lavish YA fiction titles (almost exclusively post-apocalypse). These are being pitched to all ages from teens to 40 year olds (Twilight, for example, crosses several demographics explicitly and lucratively). Unlike cartoons that contain "Two levels" of appeal that are generally entirely separate (pop-culture jokes the younger audience will not catch, voice-casting designed to appeal to grown-ups), the gestalt of these movies is not so divided.

Whatever the driver, it appears to The Omnivore that "youth culture" has extended its reach by about two decades: if action movie heroes were solidly in their 30's in the 80's, today, if we took an average (for male, leading roles, anyway) we'd find that A-Grade titles--the name-brand big stars--seem to be closer to their mid 40's or even 50's. 

Even for female leads, Scarlett Johansson and Angelina Jolie clock in at 30 and 39 respectively, there seems to be some shift across the board.

At the same time, the content seems to be skewing a bit younger: Tolkien was writing for grown-ups (and nerdy, history-slanted grown-ups, at that). The Lord of the Rings started in 2001. On the other hand, while Twilight isn't exactly for teenagers, we're seeing big-budget movies off books that were aimed at teenagers being turned into the next mega-bucks franchises (Maze Runner, Hunger Games, Divergent). And let's not forget that super hero movies, once fairly niche products, are now in absolute pop-culture over-drive. This isn't all because of better special effects: a big part of it is that Marvel (Disney) has figured out that they can break the mold and make high-quality films with these characters that everyone will enjoy (Guardians of the Galaxy is breath-taking in its willingness to throw away the rule-book).

If, indeed, this is a real phenomena and not just observation bias on the part of The Omnivore, it raises a question: Did Millennials get screwed out of their own youth culture? Was it crowded out by Gen-X's which just never left (Denzel is kicking off a new franchise and we'll expect to keep seeing Equalizer movies for the next 4-6 years? At 60? Really?). Harrison Ford is still the big draw for action and sci-fi movies?

(The first Call of Duty came out in 2003 and the first Grand Theft Auto 1997--both were very different in their first incarnations than the games we now know though ...).

If So, Then What?
There's a reasonable argument that, at the top-levels of production value, there are a limited number of slots. There IS a mechanism for "crowding out" one demographic over another (video game makers can only produce so many AAA Titles a year. 2014's Alien: Isolation is based strongly on a 1979 horror movie). On the other hand, The Omnivore thinks it's less of a phenomena of marketers deciding 18-24 year olds really want to see 55 year old action stars and more that 35-50 year olds still want to see action-adventure movies their parents would have rolled their eyes at. The Omnivore remembers reading the last Harry Potter book on a business flight: He was hardly the only guy in a suit with one of the massive hard-cover tomes in his lap.

Netflix's House of Cards shows Kevin Spacy's political super-predator playing Call of Duty on an X-Box and it's not done to show he's immature (well, not exactly). It's what he does to relieve stress. He's undoubtedly not alone in that. Today's grown-ups play video games, watch science-fiction movies, and read comic books just like they did 30 year years ago in when Terminator came out.

Let's also not discount that today's young adults have way less spending power than the previous generation's. That might account for demographic marketing shifts too.

However, if this trend keeps up, The Omnivore's kids are going to be watching The Expendables X when they're 14 and going "Of course they're all in their 80's--that's how old action heroes are."

The Omnivore also wonders: In a post 9/11 culture, it doesn't seem we've exactly lost our appetite for men with guns who solve problems that can only be addressed by high-volume fire (after all, Bale made Equilibrium--and his Batman was iconic ... even if that rendition was heavily based on the 80's Frank Miller incarnation)--but why aren't there more 28-34 year old actors around to fill that role? Why is a 50 year old Tom Cruise saving the world over and over and we're still trying to recapture the magic of the 80's whether it be a Terminator reboot (that callls back, explicitly, to the first movie), a Mad Max reboot (rather than a continuation of some sort--since they're using another actor), or pouring money into a Jurassic Park "sequel?" The Omnivore gets Star Wars: that really never left--but the first movie will, apparently, reprise the old cast--now, literally, the old cast. Does the new generation really want to see that? Does The Omnivores'?

There are some young 'action heroes'--but the 80's style one-guy, his machine gun, and an endless supply of bad-guys, seems to be the domain of the guys who started it. Bruce Willis had a full head of hair in Die Hard--but who remembers him that way? Maybe our mental picture of who does that (goes on a roaring rampage of destruction) has kept up with the passing years? Maybe the one-man-with-a-gun today--to younger people--is just a school shooter?

The Omnivore is currently playing Alien: Isolation, a video game that tries, as hard as it can, to recapture the vibe and look of a 30+ year old film. It's not the first: the franchise is a long line of producers saying "Alien and Aliens were really good--can we get back to that?" Finally, says The Omnivore, they did: The computerized "sets" include retro-features like green-screen terminals and boxes of audio tapes that people in the 80's listened to. The Omnivore did actual programming and computer work on green screens and had boxes of music tapes: did any of the programmers on the title? The Omnivore doubts it. 

The Omnivore remembers being stunned by the first Indiana Jones--walking out of the theater into the bright sunlight and just being wowed. He had no idea the movie was based on the serial adventure clips some 20 or 30 years prior--but when he learned that, he knew that he wouldn't necessarily "get" all the in-jokes, tropes, and so on of that material. Indiana Jones wasn't wholly new (the same way Wire-Fu wasn't new when western audiences gaped at it in The Matrix)--but it felt that way.

What happens, though, when everything feels that way? What happens when something approaching the majority of characters pitched by big-budget entertainment at a new generation are heavily based on work that came prior? How does that work? How does that feel?


  1. Re the Bond franchise: it's Daniel Craig who's 46.

    As for how it feels when everything's "a copy of a copy of a copy", to use C. Palahniuk's quote from Fight Club: it feels like creative bankruptcy, is what. Many (most?) of the tent-pole Big Action Blockbusters of the past three or so decades have been remakes/retreads/reboots/sequels/"adaptations" of one sort or another. I suspect that soaring production costs are partly to blame: the people who put together $30+M financing deals have little interest in gambling on anything that doesn't seem like a sure bet. It's the old saying about how he who pays the piper gets to call the tune, so it's not surprising that the money-men now make creative/artistic decisions (via proxies, usually) - or at least get more of a seat at the table than the likes of us.

    There also seems to be a parallel trend of novomania, though I don't know whether this is due to studio biases or an accurate reflection of modern youth culture, deemed unlikely to appreciate black-and-white films. Hence, I suppose, Turner's colorization of various film classics. Even stranger: who thought it necessary to remake The Pink Panther? Equally shameful: Rollerball.

    As one of the older Gen-Xers myself, I often feel as though the larger culture is cannibalizing itself, basically strip-mining my childhood in a craven attempt to sell it back to me - not even once or several times but continually. Buy this on VHS! No wait, Betamax! No, laserdisc! DVD! No, DVD-HD (psyche!). Blu-Ray! 4K! 8K!

    I remember a conversation with your brother about 20 years ago about the escalating hardware requirements for bleeding-edge computer games, where we concluded that Origin's Wing Commander XII would probably dispense with distribution media entirely and land a Strike Carrier in your front yard. Less hassle than downloading 4 PB over a V.34 modem...

    -- Ω

    1. The dude has two first names. He gets what he's asking for.

      -The Omnivore

    2. 30+ Million? No no no -- more like 150+ Million. And the reason for all the retreads is that they play reliably overseas. With the death of DVD, which used to account for fully 40% of a film's revenue stream, ALL that's left is international -- films live or die on whether they play well overseas. Foreign markets like big tentpole movies with huge special effects, often franchises, so they know the characters already. So that's what Hollywood gives them, because it's their only hope at a profit.

  2. The shoutout to Angelina is nice, but really underscores the sex divide in hollywood. You've got 20 some-odd old dudes who keep selling, and not one female over 40. Just doesn't exist. It's like they all fall into a black hole and then come out the other side only able to do older mother or grandma roles.

    1. I suppose a counterexample (which probably only strengthens your point) would be Sigourney Weaver, who was 47 when she starred in Alien Resurrection and nearly 60 in Avatar.

      -- Ω

    2. Yeah: women seem to have different rules.

      -The Omnivore