Bring Back the Money Men
Money doesn't always ruin everything
Art was arguably better when the people in charge of various entertainment companies were motivated by profit than by shaping society. This sounds strange, but I think the evidence bears it out.
Once upon a time, as recently as a half-decade ago, Marvel movies were universally acclaimed by people who should be too old to enjoy superhero movies, but let’s roll with it. What these movies provided were exciting and, dare I say occasionally thought-provoking, spectacles that weren’t afraid to tackle the occasional big question while, at the end of the day, upholding what we consider traditional moral values. Things like:
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Good triumphing over evil.
The importance of family.
The power of love.1
Doing what is right no matter the personal cost.2
Treating all people with dignity.3
You didn’t have to be an adherent of any particular religion for these messages to resonate.
These messages resonated because they are universal and speak to us as human beings. Maybe they are universal in a Western/American sense, although I like to think that generally speaking my experience is that most world cultures can relate.
So while Marvel movies were dressed up in the guise of superpowered characters beating the tar out of each other and whatnot, they still spoke to people. Lots of people.
Looking back, it’s crazy to think that there was a time when comic book movies weren’t money-printing machines. Many early superhero films were awful, and even the good ones like Blade and X-Men didn’t spark a gigantic rush to shove every single comic book property onto the big screen. No, the 2002 Spider-Man4 movie really did that.
And yet, it wasn’t until the 2008 Iron Man movie that Hollywood hit up on the proven formula that, really, lasted until 2019’s Avengers: Endgame.
These movies were fan-favorites. By and large, they were well-done and respectful to the source material.5 They also made a buttload of money. In case you’re wondering, a buttload is 126 gallons.6 Usually of wine. But if you do the math to figure out how many dollar bills can fit in, say, a 5 gallon bucket, which someone from the Miami Herald did back in 2016,7 you can figure it out:
A dollar bill is 2.6 inches by 6.14 inches and is .0043 of an inch deep. A stack of 100 would be .43 of an inch deep and, using width times height times length, 6.86 cubic inches in volume. Leaving room for wrapping around each block of cash, that means about 239 stacks of 100 could fit into the bucket. That’s $23,900 if one dollar bills, $2,390,000 if we’re talking $100 bills.
Let’s use $100 bills, because this is Hollywood. So dividing $2,390,000 by five gets us $478,000 per gallon. Multiplied by 126, we get a grand total of $60,228,000. So a buttload of $100 dollar bills is $60,228,000.
Yeah, Marvel movies tended to make several buttloads of money. Avengers: Endgame worldwide made $2.8 billion. That’s just about 46.5 buttloads. Impressive.
They are making fewer buttloads, now, ever since they entered into Phase 47 or whatever phase I don’t know because I’m not a nerd. Concurrent with this is, from what I read and hear, is a decline in the quality of the movies. It’s a tale as old as time: flush with cash from actual good art that people enjoy, a new crop of creators takes charge with the intent of pushing their political messages at the cost of story and fun and the kind of stuff that will give a movie legs, thereby alienating large chunks of moviegoers before the movie is released, and then calling them racist when they don’t bother showing up, or do see the movie and criticize it.
Trying to reshape society isn’t always the best way to sell product. A lot of these movie franchises, and TV and video game and comic book franchises as well, have such a large built-in fanbase that as long as the product meets the basic fundamental standards of craft without insulting said fanbase, it’ll most likely do okay numbers.
But is “good numbers” the same as “good art”? Probably.
Let’s hear from a guy who spoke a lot about the various problems in his given industry:
Remember the 60s? You know that era that a lot of people you know have these glorious memories of? Which, they really weren’t that great, those years, but one thing that did happen during the 60 was some music of an unusual or experimental nature did get recorded and did get released. Now, look at who the executives were in those companies at those times: not hip young guys. These were cigar-chomping old guys who looked at the product that came and said, “I don’t know! Who knows what it is? Record it, stick it out. If it sells, all right.”
We were better off with those guys than we are now with the supposedly hip young executives, you know, who are making the decisions of what people should see and hear in the marketplace. These young guys are more conservative and more dangerous to the art form than the old guys with the cigars ever were.
And you know how these young guys got in there? The old guy with a cigar one day goes, “Ah well, I took a chance, it went out, and we sold a few million units, all right? I don’t know. I don’t know what it is, but we got to do more of it. I need some advice. Let’s get a hippie in here.”
So they hire a hippie. They bring in the guy with the long hair. Now, I’m not going to trust him to do anything except carry coffee and bring the mail in and out. He starts in there. Let’s carry the coffee. “Well, we can trust him. He brought the coffee four times on time. Let’s give him a real job.”
Okay. He becomes an A&R man. From there, you know, moving up and up and up and next thing you know he’s got his feet on the desk and he’s saying, “Well, we can’t take a chance on this because it’s just simply, that’s not what the kids really want, and I’m, and I know.”
You know, they got that attitude, and the day you get rid of their attitude and get back to, “Who knows? Take a chance,” you know, that entrepreneurial spirit where, even if you don’t like or understand what the record is that’s coming in the door, the person who is in the executive chair may not be the final arbiter of taste of the entire population, you know?
Of course, Zappa is the same guy who said this a mere six years earlier:
Once upon a time, a record company had A&R people in it who would take a chance, make a decision, use their gut reaction, sign a group, and see what they could do with it. Okay? That was, whoa, a long time ago. It’s not that way anymore. All decisions about who get signed and what happens to the record are made by these drooling little midrange accountants. And everything is based on the numbers games in there. And the taste of the accountants is what is ruling the mass media. It's all just the dollars and cents of exchange. And if you wanna make music that you believe in, the chances of doing it on a major label basis are nil, because they’re all so frightened. Everybody’s there trying to protect their job. And it's easy—it’s easier to look like a wise executive by saying no to something if it’s just the most minutely fringeoid in terms of content.
The horrible part of it is the artists who are feeding this ecological chain stop making songs they believe in and start making product that they know will be airable. And they change the style of what they're doing to fit within the narrow framework that is the contemporary accepted norm for suitable, radio-sounding music. And anything that comes outside of that norm doesn’t go on the air, you don’t hear about it, you don’t know about it. Right now there’s probably hundreds of artists in the United States making great sounds and great music. You’ll never hear it. You’ll never find out about it.
So which is the problem? The A&R people, or the bean-counters? In order to reconcile these seemingly contradictory statements, it’s reasonable to assume that the A&R people Zappa referenced in the 1981 interview, are the old guys referenced in his 1987 interview, and that the new, young and “hip” A&R guys are in league with the bean-counters, or are calling the shots. You also get the numbers guys, the data-driven dorks slathering all over their spreadsheets trying to use math to figure out what is good art. The less said about them, the better.
Either way, from Zappa’s thoughts we can glean that a lack of confidence in both the creators and the audience are key problems.
The issue, as I see it, breaks down like this:
It’s really impossible to predict with any level of great accuracy what audiences will like, and by how much. Therefore, creators and those financing them, need to take chances.
Creators and executives trust the audiences to tell them what they like, and will use feedback to either (a) provide more of what the audience likes, or (b) go in a different direction, as needed.
The market is so gigantic and so diverse, that something might make several buttloads of money despite not being a gigantic mainstream hit. This was the story of Zappa’s career, after all.
It takes a certain degree of risk to figure out what audiences want. For example, it took the movie industry a good 30 years to hit on a formula for comic book movies that resonated with the public.
Artists rarely want to get stuck in a rut by repeating themselves (the artistic temperament is real), but those putting up the money to release said art like money and want to stay in business, so very often balances are struck: X amount of sure things in exchange for you getting to put out Y products. I think this is what they call “loss leaders,” but I don’t know, it’s not like I went to business school or anything.8
Making tons of money is a signal that this is what audiences want. One of the issues Zappa pointed out, which I don’t necessarily agree with him about, is that it’s bad for entertainment companies to be proactive in trying to predict what will be a hit and what won’t. There’s nothing in and of itself wrong with that, especially if it’s your money on the line. I think the issue is when signals from audiences are ignored. Maybe there’s a niche that does like this band or that author, but the entertainment company doesn’t personally think that this is where the artform should be going, so they nix it. That I’m not a fan of.
Art and commerce have always been linked. I think this marriage works best when the artist is not concerned with dollars and cents but is able to find a moneyman willing to fund their creation and see if it can find an audience. Others cut out the middle man and go right to the audience itself. Author Brian Niemeier calls this neopatroange, because the fans as patrons and not some millionaire or billionaire9 financier. I like this, and I’ve used it, and crowdfunding and direct support remain viable, and excellent, options.
For the big entertainment companies which, like it or not, produce our culture,10 or the mass version of it, the relationship with the audience is different. The art they produced was better when the executives respected the audience—the entire audience—and didn’t view social change as their primary goal. From books to music to movies, all the way down the line, it was arguably superior when the almighty dollar was the primary goal. If your audience is “All of America” or “The Entire World,” you can’t be as choosy as us indie guys. There’s simply too much overhead.
This was a blessing in disguise. If the concern is keeping the doors open, you need people to give you money. If you want people to give you money, you need to offer something worth spending the money on. Social engineering just ain’t it, friends. The numbers don’t lie.
I think “Get woke, go broke” is copium of the highest potency—these companies will find the money to stay open one way or another because their mission isn’t making money, but social engineering. And while there is still an audience, it’s not as big as they’d like.
But the point of this post isn’t the money. It’s the art. And the art the various megacorps are putting out is pretty awful.11 Bring back the money men.
This sounds corny, but love is important, and powerful.
It pains me to see too many dissident types conflate egalitarianism and social engineering with treating people respectfully. We don’t win by being pacifistic weenies, sure, but we also don’t win by being the biggest assholes for no reason.
I recently watched all three Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies with my son, and they all hold up really well. Even the much-maligned third one.
The only MCU movies I’ve seen are the first two Iron Man movies, the first Avengers movie, and parts of Avengers: Infinity War and Endgame. I enjoyed them, but honestly the special effects in those last two really took me out of the story—maybe I’m weird, but the whole thing looked super-fake to me.
In case you’re wondering, no, a buttload as a unit of measurement has nothing to do with how much you can fit inside a human anus. That’s an “assload” you’re thinking of. Except, oh goodness, an “assload” is a real unit of measurement as well. Sorry, anus-enthusiasts. You’re out of luck here.
David J. Neal’s parents must be so proud of his journalism degree.
We need a word for what you call someone who is rich based on the buttloads of money they have. Buttloadionaire?
And like it or not, pop culture matters because, given the absence of any meaningful high culture, pop culture is all we’ve got.
I’m aware there is still good stuff. But the sterling reputation has been tarnished to the point that quality is no longer the given it once was not even a generation ago.