Give The Audience What It Wants.

"GIVE THE AUDIENCE WHAT IT WANTS!"

“GIVE THE AUDIENCE WHAT IT WANTS!”

 

I want to take a look at this statement and the questions it raises about management practices and culture within the studio system. Hortense Powdermaker makes reference to this sentiment in her book Hollywood, The Dream Factory, when discussing the relationship between the front of house executives and producers and the production teams (the creative laborers) responsible for crafting the films that the front of house execs will sell (and profit immensely from).

“Give the audience what it wants.”

This statement is at the same time a doctrine and an assertion of hierarchical power. This sentence presumes the ‘audience’ as a mindless mass so docile and so dependent (try replacing “the audience” with “the baby”) that it must have “what it wants” provided for it, being unable to create what it wants on its own; the audience spectates. Spectators cannot create, they merely consume what is shown to them. Give the audience what it wants: this is a statement about class. However, it can also be read as a statement about an industry ethic.

It is better to create than to consume.

This was the business model of the studio system; Powdermaker’s title for her book is no accident. The studios pumped movies out abundantly, using a variety of in-house control methods to keep consumption low and production high. Star talent and creative staff, the laborers whose work is necessary to create a product that is not made purely for-profit, something that expresses and showcases individual talents and perspectives; through film, as through all methods of storytelling, the individual can define humanity.

Art imitates life imitates art.

We must consider other business models and ethics that were common during the height of the studio era in order to shed more light on the power dynamics that inspired management of creative labor. Powdermaker’s notion that the studios were akin to factories is fitting and well justified. Turn of the century factories provided a large amount of framework, structuring many local, regional, and global class and labor hierarchies for much of the past century. The factory owner reaps the labor of those who work for him, while guaranteeing continued subservience through a variety of control methods, based on the exploitation of inherent power dynamics: think Option Clause.

During the studio era, producers often took credit for the creative labor of their support staff. This is one of the most defining moments of the self-aware film whose rich plot subtly comments on many of the ins and outs of the industry, The Bad and The Beautiful. Within the film, the rising producer, Jonathan Shields takes full credit for his good friend’s script, who has been working as partners with Shields, as Shields’ director and writer. The famous director that Shields replaces his friend with lauds Shields in front of his friend (as the two leave to have an expensive lunch) that he has never met a producer able to write like a director. Outrage ensues.

“Give the audience what it wants.”

I return to this statement because it connotes a particularly interesting hierarchical situation. Powdermaker relates the statement to a hypothetical conversation between producer and creative (in the studio system: owner and laborer) and gives insight to the power dynamics within the “dream factory”. Presumably, the person being talked to by this hypothetical producer is on the creative staff. It is also probably likely that this person would themselves be higher up within their own departmental hierarchy – why would a producer waste his time talking to small-time (often temporary) support staff, unless he is reinforcing his dominance?

 

Super heroes are creative crime fighters.

Enjoy a brief respite and watch someone fight back against bureaucracy:

 

“Give the audience what it wants,” as a command from management to creative laborer implies that the laborer isn’t able to realize on their own that the product, the film, should be something that the audience will enjoy, something they will ‘want’ to see. Speaking from my own perspective as a creative person, I work (and live) for the validation that an audience provides through its enjoyment of my work, my labor. Although I do not wish to make any generalizations, it is my experience that many other people I would deem “creative” or an “artist” share similar sentiment. Nothing is better than a standing ovation. We all want to feel validated as individuals. The audience, while being confined to the spectator position during the duration of the film, possesses the ability to do that; an ability that drives the creative laborer to craft the best work possible and one that defies the financial incentives, which were the studio system’s carrot on a stick.

All said, some of the most debilitating and prohibitive structural inhibitions present during the studio system are being eradicated. There is no Hays Code anymore. The individual is now more than ever able to hone their craft, as well as consume other’s crafts in order to learn more. There are more and more technological answers to some of the financially biased control systems that the studios had; systems like transportation and distribution mean almost nothing in the age of the internet and torrenting.

People become overnight YouTube stars and movies have grossed hundreds of millions of dollars while being shot on smaller and smaller budgets. The largest studios still retain the power of the blockbuster, but even these studios are now international and no longer only a feature of Hollywood. Not all of the traditional control mechanisms that favor financial hierarchies have been eradicated, but there are increasingly more opportunities for creative work to come to fruition independently of the traditional bureaucratic, oligarchic, and economically-biased regimes that dominated the emerging creative industries through much of the past century.

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