While concerned citizens and political journalists agonized over the fate of the Senate in the weeks leading up to the mid-term elections, there was a good reason no one was talking about the fate of the House: Due to the gerrymandering of Congressional districts, it would have been virtually impossible for Republicans to lose their majority, despite Congress hovering at record-low approval ratings. While once intended to reflect shifting populations, gerrymandering has become a political tool used to ensure politicians get re-elected. Purple districts are turned into strongly red or blue ones, and, as a result, the politicians who represent these heavily partisan districts are given no incentive to work with the opposition. Although there are certainly other factors, most political analysts cite gerrymandering as the primary cause of Congressional gridlock, creating an era in which America is more divided than at any time since the Civil War.
The political divisions reflected and affected by Congressional gerrymandering run so deep that they have started to creep into other areas of our culture. Based on your geographical location, I could probably guess your political affiliation, your income level, your diet, and where you get your news.
It was only a matter of time before Hollywood started to catch on.
Because movies cost many millions to produce, studios have historically designed their product to appeal to the widest possible audience. But that’s becoming increasingly hard to do, as Americans have disparate ideas of who they are and what they want. Is Benedict Cumberbatch or Dwayne Johnson your idea of an ideal man? Do you prefer your monsters to be reptilian (Godzilla) or human (Gone Girl)? When it comes to big-budget tentpole flicks, Hollywood still has to aim big, but for the increasingly large crop of mid-range movies, the studios are starting to realize that appealing to everyone is a fool’s errand. They just need to target their movies to the right gerrymandered district.
The micro-targeting of minority communities, for example, has already begun. Last month, a movie called Addicted made $7.6 million on its opening weekend. If you haven’t heard of it, you are probably a white male. The film, an erotic drama about a woman having an affair, opened on only 846 screens, but it was micro-targeted to African-American women through social media, and the results spoke loudly: The audience on opening weekend was 72% African-American and 82% female. This campaign was orchestrated by Lionsgate, who pulled off the same trick with Latino voters in 2013: Instructions Not Included, a Mexican dramedy, shocked box-office pundits by grossing over $44 million domestically in only 717 theaters.
But it seems like this process is also occurring on a larger scale. Even in just the last few years, mid-range budgeted movies targeted to specific demographics are more prevalent, and they are making more money. In 2012, only three of the top 30 movies of the year were made for less than $40 million. In 2013, it was 5. This year so far, 8 of 30 were made for under $40 million, and that’s before the Oscars inflate the grosses of a few heavily-nominated smaller movies. Already, Neighbors (frat boys), Ride Along (African-Americans), The Fault in Our Stars (teenage girls), and Heaven is for Real (Christians) have succeeded without ever becoming breakout hits. A great example is Tammy, the Melissa McCarthy vehicle that was considered a flop upon its initial release before it ended up grossing over $80 million on its $20 million budget. How did it accomplish this? Targeted demographics. As Scott Mendelson noted in Forbes, Tammy “is not just a female-centric comedy but basically a ‘No boys allowed’ picture overflowing with female characters played by a murderer’s row of female talent (Kathy Bates, Sandra Oh, Toni Collette, Allison Janney, etc.).” Tammy aimed hard for the female demographic and attracted enough of them to turn a significant profit, even if it never became that cross-over hit that many expected it would become.
We can also see these divisions in the recent trend of films with similar subject matter but wildly different political perspectives. Last year, Hollywood gave us White House Down and Olympus Has Fallen, which had nearly identical plots: There is a terrorist attack on the White House, and only a lone Secret Service member can save the day. But the political values at play could not have been more different. “Down” identified the military-industrial complex as the real evil in Washington, while “Olympus” blamed everything on the North Koreans, rousing its viewers into a patriotic fervor with a simplistic Cold War-style moral canvas: Good Guys vs. Bad Guys. Another way of looking at it? White House Down was for liberal Democrats, while Olympus Has Fallen was for Reagan-era Republicans.
The same scenario is playing out this fall with World War II films. Fury, which topped the box office in its opening weekend, is an old-fashioned celebration of American military that plays to today’s more hawkish members of society, while The Imitation Game subverts the typical American WWII narrative by positing that British academics were the real war heroes. Fury uses graphic violence to bludgeon its viewers into submission; The Imitation Game barely sniffs the battlefield and seems to absorb the values of its protagonist, who claims to be “agnostic about violence.” These are clearly films for different audiences.
Despite this cinematic gerrymandering, some films do manage to transcend cultural and political boundaries. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Lego Movie, and The Hunger Games franchise, for example, deal explicitly in political themes but their critiques are broad enough to avoid offense. But those galvanizing films used to be far more common. If you were to poll Americans in 1977 and ask them their favorite movie of the year, Star Wars would have been a near unanimous answer. It topped the box-office and even won over the elites, earning a nod for Best Picture. What answers would you get this year? In some communities, the answer might be Heaven is for Real or Son of God, while others would cite Snowpiercer and Boyhood. African-Americans might bring up the successful About Last Night, while young hipsters (and most movie critics) would certainly find a way to work in mention of The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Perhaps we should celebrate that. Film has always been a populist medium, and it can’t help but reflect our divisive national character back to us. That’s how pop culture works. But this gerrymandering, which has produced such problems in our political process, could be an exciting development for moviegoers. We may long for the days when an “event picture” could remind us of the unifying power of cinema, but this new gerrymandered system turns all of us into advocates, and when we champion a movie, we are speaking not just on behalf of our likes or dislikes, but on behalf of the very values that define us. If anything, we become more invested in the movies we love, and that can only be a good thing.