Monday, April 1, 2024

Hollyweird must go

Much of this blog post is based on an op-ed letter I sent to a newspaper, which didn't get published, and I'm not really surprised because I'm kind of a maverick. But it's mavericks who get stuff done. And I felt that the message was important enough that I can at least share it on my blog.

I write this with the full knowledge that it will shock and offend people. And I don't mean the kind of offensive that's morally repugnant. I mean offending people who have gone along with society's status quo and lulled themselves into believing they don't have to make an effort. Who prioritize money and comfort over integrity. They won't like what I'm about to say, because as a Christian, I follow a divine Master who is inviting humanity to rise from the slums of mediocrity and minimal effort and discover the joy, fulfilment, and potential of walking a higher path and not settling for the devil's destructive lies.

Christian leader Jeffrey R. Holland put it masterfully in this talk about what it means to truly be a disciple of Christ. It's not the easy or popular thing to do, but history has shown that what is easy and popular is never what is truly worthwhile. 

To accomplish anything with real meaning and impact, people have to stretch themselves, think for themselves, and stand their moral ground, and a prime example of where this isn't happening is the entertainment and media industry. And not just the creators and executives--I'm also calling out audiences for letting things slide.

Real talk: Hollywood is crumbling, and it's time for a revolution on both fronts.

The entertainment and media industries have been far too messed up for far too long, and I'm calling for an end to it. I'll be totally honest--nowadays, I don't watch TV (except BBC's The Sky at Night which is science programming done right, and Studio C which knows how to bring the values-based funny). I don't watch movies. I own zero streaming service subscriptions. I'm very picky about my video games. And I don't read fiction novels. (That last one may seem ironic for a fiction author, but I really started writing novels out of frustration that there was so little fiction out there that I liked.)

You know why? Because I feel like most of what's out there is forgettable trash. And the reason why it's forgettable trash is because it's being produced by mentally ill people whose priorities are money, fame, and trying to spread their mental illness under the pretense that they're seeing the world correctly. Why should audiences enable this nonsense?

As the world grows increasingly alienated from traditional Abrahamic and Christian values, it also grows increasingly confused and enfeebled by its own lack of moral convictions. Is it any wonder that crime rates and mental illness have risen in direct correlation with the decline of religion? When people individually, and society as a whole, reject Christian standards and beliefs, evil and dysfunctionalism are quick to occupy that newly vacant spot.

Time and again, we see actors, directors, and musicians abandon all sense of creative and personal integrity as they attempt to please the masses and their producers. Their work increasingly lacks substance and soul, and their lives and self-esteem erode until they meet ignominious ends. In a final act of irony, even their untimely and tragic deaths become a twisted form of entertainment for their audiences--think of all the pop-culture mystique surrounding people like Elvis, James Dean, and Madonna.

As a creator, do you really want that kind of fate for yourself? As an audience, if you even have half a brain, is that the sort of thing you really want to see happen to a human being? Speaking as a creator, on behalf of creators everywhere, it's really insulting when people take more interest in a person's work not because of the inherent artistic quality of the work itself, but because the artist died unusually, and frequently from causes stemming from the stress of trying to keep people interested in their work.

The entertainment industry is festering under the wrong type of leaders. The people creating our media need to be intelligent, hardworking, and most importantly inspired by a good Source. They need to be the type of people who don't pollute their bodies and dull their minds with harmful substances. People who are wise and shrewd and shun the associations of those who don't have their best interests in mind. I believe that only when we see a drastic change in character in the entertainment industry will it be able to rise above the current mire of tired sequels and remakes, writers' strikes, and rampant corruption.

You who work in the industry and see what I'm getting at, the time for change is now, and you have to be the ones who make it happen, because if you actually cognize that Hollywood is messed up and you're not okay with it, you're already light-years ahead of your peers who aren't seeing it, and you have to stop letting them call the shots.

I used to live in Los Angeles, I knew quite a few good Christians who worked in the entertainment industry, and I'm frankly appalled by the lack of a power struggle between these very intelligent, capable, well-grounded people, and their bumbling, struggling superiors and co-workers. To me, it's obvious who's better-armed in this cold war, and I feel confident that we could see people of faith and values running show business if they would just give themselves the courage to push the go button and say "no" and "this is how we're doing things". I think it's really sad that most of what we see in theaters and on TV doesn't reflect how many Christians worked on it. To me, this is the very definition of what Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount about letting your light shine and not hiding it under a bushel.

In order for this to work, creators with values have to internalize that the industry needs them more than they need the industry. Many of you occupy prominent and integral positions, and are called to work on big projects. The execs aren't letting you know this, but that means you have more influence than you think on how things turn out. You are setting a good example and setting a standard every time you say no to something you aren't comfortable with. I think you'd find it surprising what might happen if you had the courage to say "this isn't right"--because deep down, the people you're working with know it isn't right either, but they've been duped into believing this is the way things have to be in the industry.

And yes, there is the definite possibility they'll find someone else to fill your position, but I'll bet that replacement won't do half as good a job as you would have done, and then the execs will regret it when the revenue starts feebly trickling in and the critical reviews are posted. And you won't have to live with the emotional damage of having to work on something you despised, and that isn't doing its audience any good. 

I knew a devoted Christian and a tenderhearted family man who was a head storyboarder for some pretty big-name blockbuster films that gave him considerable and very real anguish. I vividly remember a talk he gave at church where he spoke of how difficult it was to storyboard The Hunger Games (I honestly don't understand why any sane person likes that movie) and how it made him feel sick inside whenever a character died. He spoke of working on an X-Men movie that was technically PG-13, but pushed the violence envelope way too much for him. And I was a bit bemused when he and his wife spoke with excitement about getting to attend the Academy Awards for a film he worked on that "only had a few swears".

That's not the way people should live. And lest you think I've forgotten about the elephant in the room that is financially providing for oneself and one's family, I firmly believe the Lord has better plans for you than reducing yourself to aiding in the creation of trash to make ends meet. Go to Him in prayer and ask Him to help you find opportunities for work that fit with your standards and where your voice is respected. Your talent is worth so much more than being a mere cog in a dysfunctional machine, and no one is better equipped than you to not only breathe new life into entertainment, but lift it to its true potential.

I know you're probably saying "but the industry just doesn't work that way". Have you ever considered that it doesn't currently work that way because people aren't trying hard enough? Were the Founding Fathers content to continue living under British misrule rather than start a war and form their own nation because "the British Empire just doesn't work that way"? Think about it.

And, while I think it's admirable that there's a cottage industry for Christian and values-based media, consisting of a united front of creators trying to do entertainment right, I think we can go further than this. Uplifting media should not be a cottage industry--it should be the main industry.

In order to do this, I think Christian and values-based creators also need to think outside the box that the world is stuck in. While I commend your efforts, I think we need to be more original and creative. If you really want to make an impact and shift the momentum, you need to get some good trends going, not just follow what the values-based industry niche has always done or slavishly try to copy Hollywood as much as your standards allow. 

This is just my personal opinion, but I'm frankly a bit tired of Hallmark-channel-esque dramas and period romances. I want to see intellectual plotlines, engaging and endearing characters, breathtaking adventure and suspense, well-researched worldbuilding, and realistic portrayals of functional, solid friendships and family relationships. I want to see a sense of fun and imagination, trying new ideas or putting your personal fresh spin on on a theme or genre. That is the sort of thing that will not only please the demographic already on board with your standards, but also hook and intrigue everyone else, and invite them to savor the experience of a higher level of entertainment. And once you've enjoyed a high-quality feast, it's difficult to want to go back to McDonald's.

And now a word to the consumers--the audience. Please stop letting things slide. Please stop encouraging the industry to continue churning out inane rubbish. I understand you need a good Netflix binge every now and again, but entertainment should do more than just put interesting pictures in front of your eyes--it should feed you intellectually and emotionally and leave you feeling better about yourself and about life. So much entertainment these days utterly fails to do that, and I think a big part of the equation is audience response and how much you are (or aren't) willing to put up with. The biggest decision-makers in Hollywood aren't the executives--they're the people who are actually buying the movies and the merchandise. You are telling producers, by your consumer choices, what you do or don't want to see.

One thing specifically I think audiences need to speak up about more is putting the "family-friendly" back in "family" films. I think it's idiotic that these days, PG is the new G and PG-13 is the new PG. I'm so tired of seeing kids' merchandise for PG-13 films. I'm so tired of PG-rated Disney movies that parents plop their toddlers in front of as if it's not going to affect them.

I hated Frozen. Yeah, I said it. When I watched it for the first (and only) time, I wished I could get the past hour and a half of my life back. I found the characters obnoxious, the humor immature, and the music forgettable. I was annoyed with the immodest dresses, the super forced romantic subplot (pretending like Anna/Kristoff wasn't going to happen, and then having her kiss him two seconds before the credits roll, is just not satisfying or realistic at all in my opinion), and how hard the writers were trying to push Olaf on us (I get it, he's a magically-animated snowman with the personality of a 5-year-old, does he really need to be in every scene with throwaway lines). 

I also found it unnecessarily dark and violent at points, and sometimes the writing felt really forced in order to make things happen the way they did, such as everybody suddenly randomly antagonizing Elsa for displaying really cool ice powers, when it really would have helped to at least establish beforehand that these people are suspicious of magic or some such. I still can't wrap my head around why the sheeple of Arendelle decided to blindly follow Hans in hunting down Elsa just because he said so, when up until that point they had displayed nothing but affection for and devotion to their queen. I really can't stand when plotlines make no sense just for the sake of being more dramatic.

Plus, just as problematic, there are some subversive messages in Frozen that I really disagree with, like how it makes a mockery of the ideas of falling in love and wanting to have a family, which are actually very psychologically healthy and normal human desires for something that, when done right, greatly increases personal happiness and satisfaction. It casts Anna in a bad light for wanting to get married, when considering her frustrating family situation (an orphan with a reclusive sibling), I think it's very understandable that she's desperately looking for more family than she had. The writing also lionizes Elsa and tries to make her look independent and cool for running off to let her hair down (figuratively and literally), cast off her society's conventions, and find herself, but it's very obvious to a critically-thinking viewer that her impulsive actions sent her entire kingdom into chaos and disarray, and put her sister in mortal danger. Elsa wasn't being cool, she was being selfish and irresponsible, and I hate that her character arc appears to encourage abandoning all sense of family and societal duty so you can go off by yourself and be "different".

It's not a film I'd want a kid watching, and I really can only attribute its runaway success to a very savvy merchandising campaign. Much like Moana and its messages about how it's cool to be a bratty, obnoxious teenager who runs away from home instead of talking things out with your parents. I hate to break it to teens, but in real life, your parents are usually right. Also why is Maui a disagreeable narcissistic sociopath in the film? He's so much more likeable in real Pacific Islander mythology. Also, I hate that Heihei and Pua literally do nothing for the plot and just exist to be cute so they can have merchandise made of them. It was at that point that I kinda stopped paying attention to Disney movies, honestly. Which is unfortunate because their animation is fantastic. They just need to use that technical skill and artistry to tell better stories.

What I'm trying to get at is that we should be able to share movies and TV shows with our kids without having to fast-forward parts, cover their eyes/ears, use video filtering software, or explaining to them that some of the things they saw/heard weren't okay. I think there are also plenty of adults who don't feel comfortable with a lot of the content they see in their entertainment. But trying to awkwardly sidestep around iffy content isn't going to solve anything. If we don't make it known to the creators that we don't like what they're doing, they'll just keep doing it. They're getting money from you watching their movies whether or not you use a filter, so they're currently under no obligation to make movies cleaner to begin with. And is that really what you want?

Another area where the audience really needs to start speaking out more is mobile gaming. If it's not obvious, I'm a gamer, and I love me a good RPG, but unfortunately there are relatively few out there that are tame content-wise (shoutout to Pokémon and Cookie Run for being awesome and actually trying to be family-friendly). I rely on content ratings to tell me what I should expect from a game, and while I feel the ESRB does a generally good job assigning accurate ratings to console games, it and the Apple App Store's rating system have really dropped the ball when it comes to mobile games.

An appalling number of games in the Google Play store and the Apple App Store (yes, I use multiple OSes, okay?) are not rated correctly. I'm annoyed, I'm sure plenty of parents are annoyed, and it's time we all speak up, because what they're doing right now just isn't working.

I did some research, and in both the Apple App Store's rating system, and the ESRB's system for rating "virtual" games (i.e. games only available in app stores and as digital downloads on consoles, as opposed to games that get a physical game card/disc release), game developers must submit a document to the rating system, declaring any iffy content. The games are then automatically assigned a rating based on what content was declared. Nobody from the ratings authorities actually looks at the games.

And while this seems like it might be the only way to make things work on paper, due to the sheer volume of digital games in app stores making it logistically infeasible to give every game an in-depth treatment, in reality, this just allows developers to be lazy or sloppy about what content they declare. I've played way too many mobile games that had an E10+ rating and the only content descriptor was "Fantasy Violence", but they were full of profanity and inappropriate content. Sometimes I wouldn't get even five minutes into a game before something obnoxiously offensive popped up. 

And to make matters worse, there aren't currently any penalties for developers who submit an inaccurate content description for a mobile game. If someone submits an inaccurate description for a physical release that isn't caught before launch, the ESRB heavily fines them and the game is temporarily removed from shelves while the rating is reassessed. No such system exists for mobile games. Both app stores allow you to submit a complaint about offensive content or an inaccurate content rating, but the only thing that happens is that the rating gets changed. Nothing is being done to take these developers to task for a lack of honesty and/or understanding, so they have no reason to attempt to be more accurate in their content declarations.

It also doesn't help that even if you submit a complaint, there's no guarantee the rating will get reevaluated. I keep seeing games in the app stores that have gone under the wrong rating or content descriptors for months or even years, despite my submitting multiple objections. That doesn't really give me confidence that the ESRB or Apple actually care.

As gaming in general trends more and more toward digital downloads, I think it's time the ESRB reevaluated their policy of using a less strictly regulated method for assigning ratings to digital games. I emailed them with a list of literally almost twenty mobile games that I played where the content rating and description was definitely inaccurate, and that's a big red flag.  If age ratings are going to be wildly inaccurate to the point of being useless, what's the point of even having a rating system?

If I was a parent, based on what I've seen, I definitely wouldn't allow my kids to use either app store unsupervised even with parental controls turned on (especially the Apple App Store, where the parental controls merely disable downloads of apps above a certain age rating, but stupidly still display them). More parents need to speak out and let the ESRB and Apple know that they aren't doing their job right.

Audience, you hold the power, so start exercising it. Producers are scared of you. Look how hard they try to bend to your whims. You need to tell them that you want less rubbish in your media, and you need to show that by not supporting it financially. I understand that there are franchises you may feel passionately about, but you need to take a critical eye to them and evaluate if they are really doing anything for you and living up to your moral standards. You may need to let go and scale back to stop supporting dysfunctional creators.

Remember, your time is valuable, and your brain is valuable. Just as it's important to be selective about what food you put in your body, it's important to be selective in what you feed your mind. Considering the deplorable mental condition of many who currently hold power in the entertainment industry, can you really trust that you can plop down on your couch, turn on a streaming service, and indiscriminately ingest whatever the "suggested for you" algorithm decides to throw at you?

Hollywood has been rotting from the inside out for a long while now, and it's finally showing signs of collapsing at its decayed foundations. There's no better time for people with standards and values, both creators and audiences, to swoop in and rebuild the industry into something really worthwhile. The crazies have had their heyday. Their time is up. Now let's get to the real good stuff.

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