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There is an old adage, I don’t know who to attribute it to (probably Norman Lear), that theater is for actors, movies for directors, and television for producers. The logic behind it is fairly straight-forward and compelling.

No matter how much the director works to make their vision come to life on the stage, when the curtain rises the production succeeds or fails based on the choices the actors make that night, in that moment. They have all the power. Cinema is a different animal, granting considerably more influence to the director. They place the camera, and therefore the audience, wherever they want. They can demand take after take until they fill the frame with the vision they hold in their mind. They can lean over the shoulder of the editor at every step, telling the story they want to tell. The director does not, by any means, hold unchecked power, but they are the high-leverage determinant of a project’s success or failure.

Television as a producer’s medium is, in my opinion, slightly out of date. When people spoke of the power of producers within television, they were speaking of network television; a landscape with limited channels where few would ever be so foolish to dismiss the power of the median voter theorem. Producers thrived because they made the high leverage decision: what gets to be on television. The actors, the writing, the (ha!) cinematography, those were all 2nd-order concerns, trivial concerns really, that lived in the shadow of the one decision that truly mattered: did you get to be on television?

Whole lines of economic research and theory center on the economies of scale and network effects. If you’ve ever wondered why books about old Hollywood have some of the craziest stories you’ve ever heard, it all comes back to the simple, but rich, economics of a marketplace with massive network effects for consumers (you want to watch what everyone else is watching), enormous fixed costs for setting up a network that absolutely trivialize the marginal costs of producing a show, the nearly zero marginal costs of broadcasting, and the enormous barriers to entry for potential rival networks. Coupled with the enormous status of associated with “being on television”, you arrive at an outcome where the artistic quality of content is almost irrelevant to market success, labor is willing to work for peanuts, and your capital inputs are almost exclusively fixed costs. Who’s the high leverage determinant of outcomes? The person who gets to decide what gets to be put on television.

That world is gone and I am grateful for it. Television is now the medium for writers.

We live in an endless wonderland of channels and content. The median viewer is still well served by a multitude of outlets, but it is within the microbiomes of this new ecology of entertainment that most of us are lured towards. If the defining attribute of the supply of entertainment has become its specificity, then the defining attribute of our demand is its depth. We demand 32 film superstructures with fully fleshed out worlds within worlds within worlds. We demand 6 seasons and a movie exploring the relationships between a community college study group and their metacommentary on film and television and how it has come to define how we view relationships. We demand 10th season callbacks to a sight gag from season 2 that was originally an homage something Truffaut did (which was itself an homage to Hitchcock). We want the story to keep going and going and going, and if has to end, it sure as hell had better not all been a dream.

Showrunners, who are typically the final typewriter that most scripts go through, and their teams of writers are producing the content that we voraciously binge. I don’t (want to) know how many hours of television I watch a year. but I have no doubt that I’m consuming 1000’s of manhours of writing, which makes it hard to complain about the price of HBOMax when I’m effectively paying pennies per hour for good writing. Maybe good writing has always been in short supply, but for the first time it is the the high leverage determinant of the success and failure of outcomes– good writing is the short side of the market. So if you want to make it as a writer, keep writing! But if you want to make a career and pay a mortgage as a writer, I suggest you bone up on your television story structure.

NB: for the couple dozen or so of you who read this, be advised that I am Mike Makowsky, the economics professor, not Mike Makowsky the talented screenwriter. Please do not blame him for my opinions, though I do encourage you to watch his movie Bad Education, which is excellent.

In Defense of Austenland (2013)

Imagine you finish watching The Greatest Showman and immediately watch it all again. The sets are beautiful and the movie inspires you to believe in the American Dream again. Looking for someone who shares your joy, you google movie reviews. Up comes the NYT website and some reviewer has written, “I expected a movie about the circus to have clowns, but director Michael Gracey disappoints.” You would be upset and feel the need to set the internet record straight.

Today I write to defend female filmmaker Jerusha Hess and her delightful directorial debut Austenland (2013). I will not link to or quote the nasty NYT review.

Jerusha Hess is the brilliant writer of Napoleon Dynamite (2004). I loved Napoleon Dynamite so much that I used my screen printing assignment in high school art class to create custom shirts with references to the movie. If you don’t get Napoleon Dynamite, you really don’t get it. It is funny, and every visual feature is intentional.

Austenland is also funny. There are slapstick moments that made me laugh. I also enjoyed little details such as the recurring motif of characters holding fake animals. Ironically, one of the only real animals is a newborn horse foal, who ultimately turns out to be part of a lie. The fake things are real and the real things turn out to be fake. This film is meta. It has layers, like Shrek. It is only inside of the theatrical play within the theme park that the leading man expresses his true feelings.

On the surface, this film is a guilty pleasure romantic comedy. It does deliver on fantasy wish fulfillment, which I think it should. Impressively, it delivers on wish fulfillment while simultaneously delivering interesting commentary on fantasy versus reality.

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Female orphan with superpowers stories

It’s been a heavy week. Here’s something for the weekend to take your mind off of Covid deaths and democracy in peril.

Disney made almost $1.5 billion from the theatrical release of Frozen II in 2019. Netflix reported The Queen’s Gambit (TQG) was one of its most popular shows of 2020. TQG attracted tens of millions of viewers around the world. These two stories are strikingly similar to each other.

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Meaningful Life and The Queen’s Gambit

If you liked Star Wars: A New Hope, and everyone does, then you will enjoy The Queen’s Gambit. It’s like The Mighty Ducks for chess, with a lot more drugs and female coming-of-age.

The main character, Beth, achieves success and seems happy at the end. There is some pretty on-the-nose dialogue about happiness in the show.

Other female characters represent other arenas of achievement. A high school friend, Margaret, has a baby. The baby curtailed Margaret’s freedom and locally-high-status social life. Marriage and children is portrayed as a drag. Margaret’s baby carriage basket contains only clinking bottles of alcohol, which I suppose is meant to indicate that Margaret is even more miserable than the face she presents to Beth when they meet in a store.

Motherhood is not interesting to Cleo, a model. However, even her own achievements in terms of physical beauty leave Cleo unsatisfied.  Cleo says, “Modeling and models are insipid.” Cleo’s life might seem exciting to those of us on the outside of the fashion world, but Cleo wishes she could win at chess and is openly envious of Beth.

A non-Beth female character who is pursuing a life of the mind is Jolene. Jolene is a paralegal who aspires to be a lawyer because she believes that will make her powerful and respected. Jolene envies Beth’s winner status. Jolene has an active role in giving Beth straight talk about drugs and also in loaning Beth money.

Patriotism and religion are despised by Beth and Jolene. They hate the Christians who run an orphanage where Beth and Jolene apparently received an excellent education. Jolene says she was happy when the director of the “Home for Girls” broke her hip and became crippled thereafter.

The irony of the Queen’s Gambit is that the show exalts intellectual ability and yet a social scientist is left with very little to think about. The star of the show is mesmerizingly beautiful. Viewers mostly just stare at her. Here is some honesty from Twitter

In the show, every typical source of meaning is knocked over like a king in checkmate. It all works out for Beth, because of her inimitable talent and adoring fans.

If you are actually thinking, you might wonder what those of us who are not chess champions should do with ourselves. We can’t all become lawyers, and not even all lawyers are happy.  

Some research shows that American women report wishing they had more children.

In the show, Beth is just as beautiful and fashionable as Cleo, but also wins at chess. Some of us mortals can’t have it all. If anyone is wondering, this is the haircut of the woman who might be the most comparable historical female to Beth.

Incidentally, a social science book has recently been written about the economic power wielded by the Cleo’s. You can listen to Ashley Mears on status and beauty here.

Thoughts on “The Social Dilemma” Documentary

I rarely watch things right when they come out. For once, I’m fairly current on something: the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma”.

Former employees of tech companies are using their talents to try to make sure that technology takes our society in a good direction. They appear to feel guilty for creating a product that is so fun it has become addictive.

They call attention to the negative effects of social media, which were difficult to foresee. The guy who claims to have created the Facebook “Like” button says that his intention had been to spread happiness. They didn’t realize that the lack of likes could exacerbate teen depression. They worry that in some cases it has even led to suicide.

They mention early on that social media has actually done some good. I know personally someone who was adopted from a foreign company and then reconnected with his birth family by searching his family name on Facebook.  That’s neat.

I think they underrate Facebook as a utility for adults. Parents are using Facebook to notify neighborhood residents of school fundraisers. Adults are using Facebook to sell used furniture.

Facebook is a place to turn for entertainment, but it’s really become more than that for my generation. We don’t have physical address books. We have a phone Contact list and we have our Facebook accounts.

Facebook is not the only service being scrutinized. Former employees of Google and Pinterest, among others, came forward to talk about how those services use customer data to sell advertisements.

One of the good points they make is that the algorithms that maximize ad revenue do not have user well-being in mind and can unintentionally lead to spreading false “news” stories. It’s important for users to know this. I am glad that more people are aware, thanks to the documentary.

The fact that radio is funded by ad revenue never caused us to shut down radio. Maybe it was always more transparent to listeners, and the fact that it is less individualized makes it feel less creepy.

Speaking of creepy, this documentary is creepy. It’s full of creepy music and long pauses in which your mind goes to dark places. They should have made it one hour instead of 1.5 hours. It was very manipulative, which makes sense because it was made by people who confess that they are professional manipulators.

My conclusion is that we should treat social media like alcohol. Most people can live with alcohol, but it kills. Every year, alcohol kills people. The US government estimates that alcohol kills 88,000 people every year in the US. We should be more careful with alcohol and we should all be more educated on the potential for harm.

Some people would be better off if we completely banned alcohol, but currently the strategy is to manage harm through EMTs and medical treatment. There are support groups for people such as Alcoholics Anonymous.

We think young people are more likely to hurt themselves with this dangerous item, so we restrict the sale to youth.

The internet can be very harmful to children and teens. It’s important to point out that respectable social media services like Pinterest are not the only places where kids can go. Kids and “screens” is a whole ball of twine. Regulating Facebook may actually do very little to protect children.

We can do a public health campaign, sort of like what’s going on with sugary sodas right now. I think this documentary is the beginning of a productive conversation.

It’s hard to say that I disagree with the conclusions of the filmmakers. I suspect that I do, and yet they mostly just tell stories and ask open questions and fidget quietly on screen. So, it’s hard to pin them down on precise policy recommendations. Although I resent having to watch them fidget for so many minutes, I also don’t want to sound ungrateful for the effort they made to raise awareness of an issue they feel strongly about.

Let’s have more documentaries, and more blogs, and more in-person conversations about how to make a better world now that the internet genie is out of the bottle. Let’s keep middle school students off of social media. It starts at home and in the neighborhood.