Wednesday 13 November 2013

Effectiveness Case Study: Avatar

My reason for abandoning art house cinema is that I realized my work was unlikely to have a significant impact on the world. Even now as I attempt to hierarchize different uses of media according to a utilitarian rubric, my intuition remains that conventional forms of art and entertainment are very unlikely to be good bets for optimal cost-effectiveness.

This is the start of a series of posts in which I’ll apply my qualitative method for determining the effectiveness of media projects to different examples. I decided to start with the movie Avatar, as it’s fairly easy to rate and almost everyone’s seen it. Below lie my answers to all 8 questions.

Remember that to the first five questions, possible answers are limited to "High," "Medium," and "Low." To the final three questions, answers can fall anywhere on a 7-point scale from -3 to +3.

These 8 questions will henceforth be referred to as SoI-1, SoI-2, ..., SoI-5 & QoI-1, QoI-2, QoI-3.

Strength of Impact:
  1. How many people does the project reach?
  2. How significantly does it impact the people it reaches?
  3. How likely are the people it impacts to spread this impact?
  4. How long lasting is its impact?
  5. How grave was the issue pre-impact?
My answers:
  1. High
  2. Low
  3. Low
  4. Low
  5. Low

The answer to the first question is obvious enough. Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. It was heavily marketed and more importantly, heavily watched. Its potential to have mass positive and negative effects on society is therefore high. 

SoI questions 2 through 4 scored a "Low" from me because, beyond the short-lasted thrill of watching the film, it's unclear what audience members are going to take away with them. Certainly, there are morals embedded in the story, some of which I find helpful and some of which I find harmful, but there isn't much evidence that people are leaving a movie like Avatar with an increased respect for other cultures or an increased desire to preserve nature or a decreased acceptance of a dynamic, complex view of the self. It is the case that systems of media content continually reinforce certain messages to the extent that viewers are influenced, but this happens mainly with messages that are ubiquitous and that occur repeatedly. A single film likely only has a tiny effect.

Lastly, I answered SoI-5 with a "Low" because the film was mainly watched by middle-class audiences in Western societies. These people have their own problems but relative to the world's global poor, they aren't in any desperate need.

Quality of Impact:
  1. How much does it increase the accuracy of people's models of reality?
  2. How much does it improve people's quality of life?
  3. How much more likely does it make people to act altruistically toward others?
My answers:
  1. 0
  2. +1
  3. +1

The reason for low scores in these areas are similar to the film's low scores on SoI-2-4. Huge amounts of people are exposed to Avatar but very few of them are deeply affected, certainly not for long after the film has ended.

The film scored a 0 for QoI-1 because the film's bad messages (glorification of hope against hope, vast oversimplification of the nature of the self, acceptance of us-vs-them mentality, the perpetuation of the good vs evil paradigm, the non-existence of real-world everyday problems, the falseness of a clear-cut plot, etc.) more or less equal out its good messages (spirituality and finding meaning are more important than material wealth, forcefully uprooting other cultures to take their resources is bad, the virtue of taking a stand for what you think is right, the virtue of self-sacrifice, we should be careful with how we affect the environment, etc.). I don't think people are leaving Avatar any more or less educated than they were when entering it. This can probably be said for almost all blockbuster movies, if not almost all Hollywood movies.

To QoI-2, I gave it a +1 because Avatar generally entertains, excites, and inspires people. It doesn't do much else and its entertainment value doesn't last long after the movie ends, but it is still generally A Good Thing.

To QoI-3, I rated Avatar a +1 because it likely inspired a very tiny sample of its audience to become more proactive in environmental and other altruistic causes. The most significant effects of works of art and entertainment may turn out to be their ability to motivate a handful of their viewers to pursue large goals. Nick Beckstead claims that a lot of effective altruists point to Schindler's List as a film that motivated them to pursue altruism (personal correspondence). A film like Avatar's mass tiny positive effects may be outweighed by it's very large positive effects on a very select few of viewers. I don't know of any altruistic people inspired by Avatar but I gave the film a point for its potential to inspire future viewers.

* - * - * - * - *

In summary, Avatar reaches a mass audience but its effects are generally small. It is likely a positive contribution to the state of the world but that isn't to say that a million other films couldn't exceed Avatar's positive impact had they been seen by as many people. We mustn't forget that there are attributes of an artwork that make it more or less likely to have box office success. It's easy to say that, if shown to the same audience, Tarkovsky's movies would have better effects than Cameron's movies, but that omits the fact that Cameron knows how to make movies that reach that kind of audience, while Tarkovsky didn't. Artists must consider the trade-off in play here: to make a sophisticated work for a niche audience or to make an unsophisticated work for a mass audience. On the surface, it appears that somewhere on this continuum lies the optimally cost-effective film.

There is another factor to consider, however: money. It may turn out that the optimal balance of sophistication and mass appeal requires a budget that such a film can't earn back. A film as commercially successful as Avatar reminds us of the possibility of artists and entertainers to "earn to give." In the movie industry, there is an element of risk involved in producing a film, however. Only a select few filmmakers can feel confident that everything they make is going to earn its money back. Pouring $200 million into a trashy film that bombs at the box office may be one of the biggest wastes of money available to rich people.

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