Monday, April 20, 2009

Movies & Sports Sell Out

I recently got into a debate with my brother, Tom (can you imagine it?) about what new stadiums like Citifield reflect about the state of sports. I contended that Citifield represents everything that is wrong with professional sports today. It’s more about making money than it is about playing the game. Tom contended that the Mets’ parent company has every right to make money and to that ends, it’s all good. He’s right to a point (whether any inanimate object actually has rights, is another debate). But the debate brought up an interesting parallel of the world of sports to the world of film. Tom said that the sate of Hollywood was just as bad. And ya know, he’s kinda right. To a point.

You see, Transformers II is coming out this summer. That says it all right there. It seems that when making money becomes the focus, the art suffers just as much as the sport suffers. Both art and sports are about the doing. And they are about doing for doing’s sake. When it’s about money, you get Michael Bay and Nic Cage movies and you get MLB, NBA and NFL. Yes, there is entertainment value (of varying degrees) but it becomes more about product endorsements, high salaries, action figures and video games. It becomes more about the distractions from the game/movie than about the actual game/movie itself.

There is a level of making money on artistic endeavors like the Weinstein Company, Sony Classics or Focus Features. They make prestigious pictures that make a comparatively meager amount of money. This is kind of like minor league ball. It’s still a pure game but there’s still a commercial value to it ("Hit the bull and get a free steak").

Then you have the pick-up game in the park. The Whiffle Ball game in the back yard. Just people playing a game to play the game – that’s kinda how Kevin Smith made Clerks. They are playing for the pure joy of the game. Yes, they want to excel and be their best. But the most they hope to get for their effort is bragging rights.

I, personally, do not follow sports. I was close to being a die-hard Met fan, until they traded away their 1986 team before the 1987 season. I remember watching the ’86 series like it was yesterday. That, to me, was baseball at its greatest: you were truly on the edge of your seat as the pitcher and the batter were steeped in battle, flinching at every swing and literally jumping for joy when the fated ball passed through Buckner’s legs.

I was hooked. I couldn’t wait for the next season to start. Then the Mets traded Lenny Dykstra. That pissed me off. And it’s not about whether they made a good trade or bad trade. (You can discuss the merits of their trades with the Mad Dog. I don’t care.) It just made me realize that to root for the 1987 Mets would basically be rooting for a trademarked logo, not the group of individuals who made up a championship team. Suddenly, I didn’t care.

Going to a game at Citifield is less about enjoying a game and more about having the Heritage Pork Porchetta and a choice of six red wines. All this hoo-ha is taking the focus away from the experience of the game itself. People are coming to see the park more than they are coming to see a baseball game. Hell, the name, Citifield, is meant to make you think of a bank instead of a ball park. Plus, higher ticket prices: the addition of more luxury suites that rent for $250,000 - $500,000 each per season, an average ticket price of $170 for the lower level seats, make the game less accessible to the average Joe-lunch-pail. Sure, if the Mets are playing, I root for them (especially when they’re playing the Yankees). But ask me one of the players name and it’s like you’re asking Tom to highlight the mise-en-scene in a Kurosawa flick.

Which brings me to the movie side of it all. Most people say that movies are worse than ever. This is somewhat true. And I say somewhat because there are great movies still being made: Michael Clayton, The Departed, Slumdog Millionaire, the Harry Potter movies. But the big difference is that studios have learned that movies don’t have to be good to make money. As a matter of fact, it can be a detriment. So, they put the big budgets behind pop-corn movies and crap that is faster and furious-er.

Again, there’s a lot of great pop-corn movies: Spider-Man I & II, The Dark Knight, the Harry Potter movies for instance. But there is a glutton of crap movies: The Hulk, the new Star Wars movies, anything with Shia LaBeouf, Daredevil, any of the “insert-genre-here Movie” movies (Scary Movie, Date Movie, Super-Hero movie, etc.) of course: Transformers I & II (I know the second has not come out yet, but if that is a good movie, I will eat a plate of dog crap in Macy’s window).

But even the good pop-corn movies are not exactly the most artistic endeavors. They loose a lot of purity, especially when they are focus-grouped to death. These movies are not made for the love of making movies, they are for the love of a paycheck.

And that is what is wrong with professional sports. It is not being played for the love of the game. Don’t get me wrong, the people who are talented enough to make it to the majors love the game. That’s just not their motive for playing any more. I’m sure Toby McGuire didn’t sign up for Spider-Man 4 because of his love of films. No, he did it for the big, fat paycheck.

Now, take a movie like 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck. When George Clooney made that film, he did not expect to rake in $100,000,000 at the box office. Which is a good thing, because he would have gone postal over its $31,000,000 gross. Instead, Clooney had something to say. And through is knowledge of film, he said it better than anyone could have. He crafted an excellent, classic movie that said something because that’s what he set out to do. Not to make a boatload of money.

The same year, Star Wars Episode 3 came out and made $380,000,000 domestically. Now, which movie was better?

Take Slumdog Millionaire. This movie was made thinking that no one would even buy it. Talk about not being in it for the paycheck. But this gave Danny Boyle incredible freedom to make a great movie without having to worry how it would play in Peoria. Boyle made that movie for the pure love of it. He did it for the doing of it. Like playing baseball in the park and diving into second. The only motivation to dive is the almost-artistic experience of doing through competition.

When films are made for the money-making aspect, the joy and soul starts to get sucked out. Look at what happened to Disney movies. Disney reached a point where you could simply imagine people sitting in a board room saying that singing gargoyles would make a marketable addition to both the movie and the accompanying Happy Meal.

So, what is wrong with Sports today is very much the same thing as what is wrong with movies today. Both are endeavors about experience and accomplishment. This is truly the essence of artistic endeavor as much as it is athletic endeavor. But when they become mired in the attempts to capitalize on them, their point shifts from artistic or athletic endeavor to a money-making endeavor. And while people have the right to make money off of art and sport, it lessens the experience if just a little bit.


  1. Ummmmmm....where to start.

    Sean, this is much clearer than your argument over instant messenger. To be expected. You raise a few good points. Comments:

    1. The Mets parent company, or at least the controlling partners, are brothers. So it's more individuals than it is a "company."
    2. The fact that they built a first class stadium has NOTHING to do with the product they put on the field. (But I'm not blind to the need to make additional revenue based on players' growing salaries.) That said, you can do both and it's not like the Mets' owners are trying to distract fans from a crappy team by creating a shiny new ball park. In fact, that wouldn't work in NY.

    3. These great movies you speak of.. the "love of the movie" movies....How many are made by major studios and how many are made by indies? The big studios care NOT about Oscars, but about revenue. Check that, they care WAY more about revenue than they do Oscars (and quality of film). This to me indisputable. You mentioned about five "great" films over the last four or five years. That's not a good sign.

    4. Bean and I (and JD and Garrett) went to a Mets game the other night and had a really great experience. Not only because there is good variety of food and beverage (Hey, if you WANT a hot dog, won't you be grateful that more fans are going to the BBQ counter??? So you can watch more of the game???), but because we watched an inning or more of baseball from about four or five vantage points in the stadium.
    Counter to your belief, a state-of-the-art ballpark can actually enhance the baseball experience.

    I don't understand what is fundamentally wrong with having wine or knishes or BBQ or sushi at a ball park. It's not "traditional" perhaps and a purist may not like a food he would not eat at a game. But the truth is every seat in Citi Field is a good seat. And a lot of seats at Shea Stadium should have come with refunds because you were so far away. So wouldn't a purist pay a little more for a better seat so he can see the game better???

    The revenues generated by better stadiums can and should be put towards improving the product. And isn't that what a true fan wants? Have your sushi, we need to upgrade our second baseman....Makes sense, no?

  2. This is a great argument. I love movies AND sports!

    Okay. There are so many parallels it's dizzying.

    1. Athletes/actors salaries mushroom in the 80s
    2. Studios/club owners hunger for building the greatest product meant talent and love of the game/art took a back seat
    3. Merchandising tie-ins/television rights (both blossomed in the 80s and changed their dynamics)
    4. A slowing-down of sports viewership/movie-watching (rate of growth. For example, fewer kids are playing Little League than 10 years ago - number of people going to the movies has dropped)
    5. HOWEVER, studio profits are UP. So are pro sports revenues. This drives owners to keep up the pace
    6. More and more often the teams with the biggest payrolls (in baseball) field losing teams/$100 million movie blockbusters are dreadfully bad and lose money
    7. Can't bring your own food to the stadium/into the theater

    And on and on.

    I don't remember the last time I went to the movies, something I ALWAYS did. Every weekend. And just the other day I was lamenting how there are no more "great" movies. Or at least what I thought were great movie experiences; Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Ghandi, Chariots of Fire ...

    It's not exciting anymore. It's all about the money and the over-hyped, self-important actors and who they're adopting.

    And same on the sports side. It's become all about the superstars and the super stadiums and the super teams

  3. While I think that there are valid points to be made about the decline of sports and film. It should be noted that Hollywood has always been about making money and accomidating the lowest-common denominator-maybe not so overtly as the last decade or so has been-but watch Turner Classic Movies and you'll see that every decade has an annoying amount of crap to it. We just remember the standouts over the blah. And while some movie theaters have slightly upgraded themselves (ie nachos at the concessions, some even adding a restaurant), you can still go to the movies for a relatively modest sum.