Roger Ebert suggests that the answer is yes:
While the success of the film continues to grow as it steadily increases its number of theaters, the majority of younger filmgoers are missing this boat. Why is that? They don’t care about reviews, perhaps. They also resist a choice that is not in step with their peer group. Having joined the crowd at “Transformers,” they’re making their plans to see “G. I. Joe.” Some may have heard about “The Hurt Locker,” but simply lack the nerve to suggest a movie choice that involves a departure from groupthink.
If I mention the cliché “the dumbing-down of America,” it’s only because there’s no way around it. And this dumbing-down seems more pronounced among younger Americans. It has nothing to do with higher educational or income levels. It proceeds from a lack of curiosity and, in many cases, a criminally useless system of primary and secondary education. Until a few decades ago, almost all high school graduates could read a daily newspaper. The issue today is not whether they read a daily paper, but whether they can.
This trend coincides with the growing effectiveness of advertising and marketing campaigns to impose box office success on heavily-promoted GCI blockbusters, which are themselves often promotions for video games. No checks and balances prevail. The mass media is the bitch of marketing. Almost every single second of television coverage of the movies is devoted to thinly-veiled promotion. Movie stars who appear as guests on talk shows and cable news are almost always there because they have a new movie coming out. Smart-ass satirical commentary, in long-traditional in places like Mad magazine and SNL, is drowned out by celebrity hype
The result, Ebert contends, is that the flashy CGI movies with either no plot at all, or one that makes absolutely no logical sense, get all the box office attention, while truly good movies get ignored. And, American movie-going is entering what Ebert refers to as a “dark age.”
Peter Suderman, who’s guest-blogging at Andrew Sullivan’s place this week, initially accused Ebert of sour grapes over the fact that professional movie critics are far less influential today than they used to be:
Numbers aside, I think Ebert’s gripes are really just a proxy for something more personal. What Ebert’s really complaining about, it seems to me, are declining prospects and influence for movie critics. Critics at daily papers all over the country are being let go. And Transformers 2 was so successful, despite overwhelmingly negative reviews, that, for the release of G.I. Joe, the film’s studio declined to show the movie to most critics—a move typically associated with extremely low-budget, second-rate genre films rather than with big-budget summer tentpoles. It’s not much of a trend, but it does suggest that the opinions of professional movie-watchers may not matter as much as they used to.
In today’s world, anyone with a computer and internet access can be a movie critic and a teenager with a cell phone probably has more influence on who sees what movie than Ebert or any other movie critic. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but it’s way the world is. Moreover, while it’s true that most of what Hollywood puts out is crap, that’s been true for a long time:
Big, dumb movies are often popular, and smart, small films are often not. But that’s been the case for decades, sagging newspaper sales or no.
If you want to know who’s to blame for crappy movies, look in the mirror.