Bold claims are certainly welcome at The New York Times Magazine, and last weekend, it floated a doozy. In the feature story “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t,” author Steven Johnson insists that widespread concerns over easy access to free stuff in the digital age was all Henny-Penny-the-sky-is-falling; according to Johnson, “creative careers are thriving,” a point he argues by ignoring pundits (including yours truly), experts, and anecdotal evidence, instead focusing on the inarguable evidence of Data Journalism. In doing so, Johnson vastly inflates the conclusions of such number-crunching—and (particularly in the case of our reporting) frequently misses the point of the arguments he’s refuting.
Let’s deal with the direct stuff first. Back in December, we ran a long-form examination of the rapid decline of mid-budget, adult-targeted filmmaking by Hollywood studios, which have switched to a business model of high-budget “big bets”; they’ve decreased the number of films they finance and/or distribute, and those they’re making tend to continue or (hopefully) launch lucrative franchises. In the Times Magazine, Johnson cites that story, quotes a key early passage, and asks, “Is Bailey’s criticism really correct? If you make a great mid-budget film in 2015, is the marketplace less likely to reward your efforts than it was 15 years ago? And has it become harder to make such a film?”
This is an interesting way to frame the argument, since the first question is never posed, in any form, in my piece, and the second — to, frankly, the detriment of both Johnson and myself — cannot be proven, at least by numerical data. No matter; he poses it and then ignores it, insisting that “the total number of pictures released in the United States — nearly 600 in 2011 — remains high,” without noting (as we did) how that overcrowding is taking place entirely at the indie level. (He’ll grant that “the combined output of major Hollywood studios declined by 25 percent,” and just kinda leave it there.)
But as long as we’re all here, let’s look at Johnson’s response to the question we didn’t ask: Is the marketplace less hospitable to mid-budget films now than it was 15 years ago? Comparing source materials, budgets (under $80 million, well over our stated definition of mid-budget as “anywhere from $5 million to $60 million,” but never mind), and Rotten Tomatoes scores (hew boy), he comes up with this:
In 1999, the most highly rated films in these categories combined included ‘‘Three Kings,’’ ‘‘Being John Malkovich,’’ ‘‘American Beauty’’ and ‘‘Election.’’ The 2013 list included ‘‘12 Years a Slave,’’ ‘‘Her,’’ ‘‘Zero Dark Thirty,’’ ‘‘American Hustle’’ and ‘‘Nebraska.’’ In adjusted dollars, the class of 1999 brought in roughly $430 million at the box office. But the 2013 group took in about $20 million more.
First off, congratulations to our erstwhile number-cruncher: he managed to find a handful of movies, in both years, that critics liked and that made money. But it’s worth noting that of the five films he names as hits in 2013, three (Her, Zero Dark Thirty, and American Hustle) all came to being via a single production entity: Annapurna Pictures, founded by heir to the Oracle fortune Megan Ellison, whose continued investment in movies of this type feels, at times, less like business than philanthropy. (He later mentions Wolf of Wall Street, whose $100 million budget sort of renders it irrelevant to the discussion at hand.) One of the films in that rundown, Nebraska, grossed $17 million domestically on a $12 million budget — not exactly the kind of “reward” he seems to be looking for. And while the $56 million domestic gross for 12 Years is impressive, it was also a Best Picture Oscar winner; American Beauty, the film that received that honor in his “class of 1999,” brought in double that amount (before inflation).
But if anything, Johnson’s Box Office Mojo-assisted research merely proves the point at the center of Flavorwire’s report: that there is a hungry audience willing to spend money on films like these, and for much of the year, they’re underserved. But to find out if it has, in fact, “become harder to make such a film,” you can’t rely on numbers, because there is no accounting of films that don’t exist. To get a sense of that, you have to seek out directors, which we did (Whit Stillman and Susan Seidelman, specifically) or read interviews, which we did (with Steven Soderbergh and John Waters and Spike Lee and Francis Ford Coppola and Matt Weiner). You have to talk to someone like Ted Hope (which we did), who’s produced 70 films, and who explained the difference between the earlier, “relatively secure” financial model and the current one, in which “the films that maybe once were made for $15 million are now being made for under five. The percentage of fees have all been cut in half, so everybody ends up having to make more movies to survive, which means that they can’t make quality, they can only make quantity.”
You won’t find expert witnesses like that in “The Creative Apocalypse That Wasn’t.” In fact, exactly three people are quoted in Johnson’s piece: Lars Ulrich, Steve Albini, and, um, me. He doesn’t talk to people who are living and working in the film, music, and publishing industries; he tries to tell his story with only numbers, and numbers simply don’t tell the whole story. This is why he’s getting so much pushback from the creative community, particularly its music quadrant; aside from the dodginess of his stats (“crooked numbers,” according to Content Creators Coalition President Melvin Gibbs), he relies so heavily on figures over observation and experience that the entire piece amounts to, as the Future of Music Coalition so eloquently put it, “an exercise in gaslighting.”
What’s more, it’s an object lesson in the shortcomings of data-driven journalism, particularly in reporting the arts. These aren’t cattle futures or mortgage rates we’re talking about here — these industries aren’t about raw numbers, or average incomes, or total revenues. They’re about creative work produced by human beings, many of whom have been on these scenes for a good long while, and might’ve observed a thing or two. Next time, Johnson might think about mining some of those experiences, rather than cherry-picking numbers and cooking his books to arrive at a narrative that’s ignorant at best and manipulative at worst.