What Is Mainstream?

mainstream.jpgA throw-away bit of connective tissue struck me in Jim Emerson’s announcement of his and MSN’s movies of the decade:

“That’s a pretty mainstream list (hey, it’s for MSN) — and so is mine.”

“Not really,” I thought. Unsurprising? Yes. Dominated by English-language films? Yes. But mainstream?

This is, of course, a matter of definition.

The combined lists have 16 movies. (For purposes of this exercise, the Lord of the Rings trilogy will be considered a single movie, using their averaged box-office performance.)

One test for “mainstream” is wide distribution: Did it play where I live, a Midwestern community of 350,000 people? Eleven did. (Those that didn’t: 24 Hour Party People, Caché, Oldboy, A Serious Man, and The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.)

A second test, decidedly less objective: Would an enthusiastic but casual movie fan be aware of these titles or be able to tell you anything about them? With perhaps two or three exceptions, yes.

But let’s step back. One definition of “mainstream” is “the principal or dominant course, tendency, or trend” (emphasis added). That’s a pretty tough standard, one only met with certainty by the Lord of the Rings movies and WALL•E.

Here are the domestic grosses and estimated theatrical audiences (based on the average ticket price the year of domestic release) for the 16 listed movies:

The Lord of the Rings trilogy: $344.5 million; 59.1 million
WALL•E: $223.8 million; 31.2 million
Million Dollar Baby: $100.5 million; 16.2 million
Brokeback Mountain: $83 million; 13 million
No Country for Old Men: $74.3 million; 10.8 million
There Will Be Blood: $40.2 million; 5.8 million
Pan’s Labyrinth: $37.6 million; 5.7 million
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: $34.4 million; 5.5 million
Zodiac: $33.1 million; 4.8 million
A Serious Man: $8.9 million; 1.2 million
Mulholland Dr.: $7.2 million; 1.3 million
Birth: $5.1 million; 0.8 million
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada: $5 million; 0.8 million
Caché: $3.6 million; 0.6 million
24 Hour Party People: $1.2 million; 0.2 million
Oldboy: $0.7 million; 0.1 million
Average: $62.7 million; 9.8 million
Median: $33.7 million; 5.2 million

One could make cases under this definition for the next three (Million Dollar Baby, Brokeback, and No Country), but after that any claim based on objective evidence is dubious. (On an anecdotal cultural-penetration level, perhaps you could sneak in There Will Be Blood because of its milkshake.)

To put that median-box-office number in perspective, a movie with a domestic gross of $33.7 million today would be the 76th most-popular movie of 2009. Is that “mainstream”?

Seven of these movies had theatrical audiences of less than 1.4 million people. Does that mean the list isn’t mainstream?

I don’t have a clear answer, and I’m not faulting Emerson. My guess is that it was a tossed-off sentence whose literal meaning was not carefully considered.

But calling that particular list “pretty mainstream” speaks to something important, which is the disconnect between movie aficionados and the general public.

Put simply: Show these two lists to the proverbial, nonexistent “man on the street,” and I’m guessing he’ll have heard of four or five of these. But to those immersed in cinema culture, the lists look kinda inevitable, like Citizen Kane atop the Sight and Sound polls.

This gulf is worth talking about it because it rears its head when movie types get aggressive in defending their right to pick apart racial aspects of Avatar.

I’m all for beating down idiots, but if the ultimate goal is to convert people — to get them to engage with movies/culture/art deeply and substantively — it is counterproductive to tell them:

“Shut up. Shut the fuck up. Shut your goddamn fucking mouth. SHUT. UP.”

It is also counterproductive (albeit much less so) to assert without definition that the MSN list is “pretty mainstream.” That merely reinforces existing division.

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