Rash Report: Summertime, and the pop culture is easy

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 3, 2011 - 7:42 PM

Commercial, cultural factors mean sequels, beach reads and summer songs.

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Jack Black's character Po is seen in the DreamWorks Animation movie, "Kung Fu Panda 2".

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Winter-weary Minnesotans, tempted by temperatures that finally suggest summer, will soon hit the beach. For those not using their iPods, radios will be blasting this year's version of a summer song.

Those not too distracted may be lost in this year's hot beach read. And once the sunscreen runs out (or the mosquitoes fly in), many will cool off in movie theaters, probably while watching one of 27 sequels that make summer cinema sizzle for the movie industry, if not for Academy Award voters.

Whether it's the result of commercial or cultural factors -- or, most likely, both -- summer pop culture is distinctly different from the three other seasons.

For movies, it couldn't come at a better time. After a blasé box office this winter, a record $277 million in tickets sold over Memorial Day weekend.

Moviegoers weren't honoring the troops by seeing war movies, however. Instead, they opted for "The Hangover Part II" and "Kung Fu Panda 2," which typify summer cinema's escapist, derivative formula of big-budget blockbusters that target the widest widest possible audience, said Carol Donelan, chair of the cinema and media studies program at Carleton College.

There's a different pattern before summer, according to Donelan. "During the rest of the year, people are kind of routed into their respective work and school lives, and the audience kind of splinters."

And then some. Last July, for instance, was the highest-grossing month ever, with a $1.3 billion box office. The record for September, the back-to-school month, is only $554.7 million, set in 2007.

The box office usually rebounds in December and January, although not to July levels, as moviegoers swap sequels for serious films nominated for Academy Awards. Hollywood times it this way, lest superlative cinema get lost among superhero flicks.

Eight of the last 10 Oscar winners were winter releases, and the two that weren't, "Crash" and "The Hurt Locker," upset two that were, "Brokeback Mountain" and "Avatar."

TV, conversely, has 12 percent fewer viewers in July than January, as long nights outside (and with schedules replete with reality and reruns, even longer ones inside) translate into smaller numbers.

While book sales don't have a similar seasonal swing, book themes do. For most, biographies aren't beach reading.

That pattern isn't lost on Kelly Gallagher, vice president of publishing services at Bowker, which compiles consumer research for the publishing industry.

"When you look at the releases that are coming out, romance titles tend to come out at that time, as well as mystery and suspense," he said. "... It's not a high time for literary fiction."

As for music, be it the Beach Boys' "California Girls" or "California Gurls" by Katy Perry and Snoop Dogg, every summer has a soundtrack. (Mine is usually "We're Gonna Win Twins," although this season it sounds like a blues tune.)

Beyond cultural factors, there's a commercial driver: Out-of-school and sometimes out-of-work teens and young adults spike listening to pop formats, which raises rates for summer advertisers, including summer movies.

Teens as a business model is as much an invention as it is a discovery, according to Gilbert Rodman, a professor in communication studies at the University of Minnesota.

"After World War II and the rise of the baby boom, the cultural sector saw teenagers and youth as a market to be tapped," he said.

This hasn't changed much since, for either pop-culture consumers or producers.

"The patterns of baby boom use became models of adult consumption," Rodman said. "They have held onto a sense of themselves as youthful into their 60s."

These factors shaping summer media are indicative of a commercial-cultural process that can benefit industry and individuals.

"Culture doesn't work in such a simple, top-down way," said Donelan. "It's not imposed upon us; it's a two-way street, a negotiation. ... The industry is just trying to keep its ear to the ground to adjust to our needs, while still fulfilling its needs."

Ideally, industry's ear to the ground would hear those who wouldn't mind a slice of serious cinema or literature in the summer, and a few more action flicks and page-turners during the ponderous winter months.

But to everything, including pop culture, there is a season. So pass the popcorn, and enjoy.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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