Colin Firth thinks the film industry is underestimating audiences. But is it just giving the people what they want?


Image Credit: Elisabetta A. Villa/

H.L. Mencken said, “Nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” In these globalized times we can now remove that “American” qualifier. This past summer was the highest-grossing season on record for the movie industry, despite the complete lack of originality, surprise, or any big-budget entertainments that deserved any real praise beyond, “Well, anyway, it was better than Green Lantern.” Currently, the halls of Hollywood are filled with cackling corporate fat cats, popping champagne and plotting future villainy: Green Lantern 2, why not? But not everyone is celebrating the film industry’s stupid-is-as-stupid-does gravy train. According to the Guardian, recent Oscar winner and emergent cinema hero Colin Firth used the Venice Film Festival opening of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to offer his own opinions about the dumbing-down of movies. “I do think there is a tendency to underestimate audiences,” said Firth. “I do think there is an appetite to be stretched.”

Now, it’s not exactly like Firth is hurling a Molotov cocktail at the establishment here. He’s a respected actor speaking to an audience of cinephiles at a film festival that marks the beginning of the Oscar season. (Firth is also in the unique position of never mortgaging his dignity on a Hollywood blockbuster; his only outright sell-out film was Mamma Mia!, a film so suffused with goodwill that criticizing it feels like criticizing a play put on by kindergarteners.) Still, there is something bracing about an intelligent actor making a quiet plea for non-stupidity. “I do think people want to hear language at its best on the screen.”

Still, there’s a part of me that wonders if Firth is right… or if we just badly want him to be right. At a certain fundamental level, people like movies, and people will generally see the movies that Hollywood creates. How else to explain this past summer, a season in which the fourth-worst Pirates of the Caribbean, the second-worst Transformers, and the fifth-worst Harry Potter all grossed over $1 billion at the global box office? And it’s not just the blockbuster entertainments that have generally aimed for the Lowest Common Denominator. The most recent winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture was Colin Firth’s own The King’s Speech, a film which (as recounted by Christopher Hitchens) brutally trimmed the complex story of the British Royal Family in the years leading to World War II into a triumph-of-the-human-spirit story in which a Nervous-But-Lovable protagonist defeated the Mean Old Nazis by Learning to Talk Good.

The movies have always been a populist medium, and there’s no shame in that. But there is a general sense that, in the last few decades, “populist” has come to mean “being dumb enough that everyone can understand.” Even Inception, a famously complicated blockbuster, provided plenty of narrative hand-holding for the fifth-graders in the audience; the second half-hour of the film is almost like a PowerPoint Presentation to prepare you for the film’s latter half. PopWatchers, do you agree with Firth that the film industry is underestimating people’s yearning for intelligent movies? Or have we all just given up and moved on to Red Dead Redemption?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

Comments (79 total) Add your comment
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  • Templar

    Firth is right. Movies in the past tended to improve the viewers vocabulary, introduce ethics they may not have been taught at home and increase ideals. The dumbing down of films and catering to the fireworks mentality diminishes the art.

  • Lucy Blue

    If Inception is our benchmark for intelligence in movie narrative, we’re in a real bad way.

    • rkor

      Sure Inception is not the brainiest movie ever made, but in terms of when it was released (during the summer blockbuster season) it was definitely smart.

      • Matt W

        The amount of people still confused by that movie is pretty high.

    • Boom

      @Lucy Blue – No, if “Inception” is the current benchmark for summer films than no, we are not in bad shape. If “Transformers” was the current benchmark for summer films than yes, we are in bad shape. Come on…don’t be ignorantly dunce-like.

      • DRG

        The problem is that Hollywood only makes movies for teenage boys but there is audience for smarter movies. The Debt performed much better than anyone anticipated over the weekend. But it was on a much smaller number of screens than wide releases tend to be because there is this assumption that nobody but 14 year old boys go to movies.

  • Browncoat

    I still blame the unintelligent people for not seeing Serenity in the movie theaters!

    • Cara

      Ha! Me too, friend, me too…

  • rkor

    I agree that Colin Firth is right. The audience isn’t stupid and treating us like we can handle a twisty plot without being talked down to was proven last summer with the success of Inception. I don’t think that calling for movies that treat their audiences as being smart means that there’s no place for Transformers 3 or Pirates of the Caribbean 4. It just means that we like the opportunity (at any given weekend) to see something that we can think about after we leave the theater, which isn’t true at this point during the summer.

    • lettergirl

      agreed….sometimes you just like to watch shiz get blowed up!!! i’m all for the deep movies, but there is a time when all you want is to go in a dark theater and be ENTERTAINED. of course, i want GOOD entertainment, but still…sometimes you want that greasy, fast food burger and sometimes you want the fancy establishments-same thing with movies. thankfully, we have a lot to choose from at the cineplex! :)

  • Seriously

    There is no one audience to satisfy, but Hollywood, in general, seems to think that there is. Not all of us want to see superheroes, car chases, explosions, or the latest furmulaic rom-com. We like to be entertained, but in a way that also engages our minds. Golden Age Hollywood understood this, and made most of their movies for grown-ups. Now most movies are being made for teens or emotionally-stunted adults.

    (And I liked the last Harry Potter film and really don’t think that it belongs in the same category as Transformers and POTC. It was part of a planned series, not a cash-grab sequel.)

    • lettergirl

      i agree. i took offense to that dig at HARRY POTTER when there is WAY crappier movies out there. any HARRY POTTER movie is better than some of the drivel that hollywood is serving up to us on a silver platter. yes, there are bad movies, but there are ALWAYS bad movies. it’s up to us to find the gems hidden in the garbage and have enough sense not to spend money on the junk.

      • lettergirl

        ** ARE (sorry for the bad grammar). :(

      • Kat

        Seriously. I was on board until he started talking smack about HP. I thought EVERYONE recognized that that was not only an enjoyable movie, but a GOOD movie. I have disliked the majority of the HP movies, but even I have to admit that despite some of the changes made to the story, that was a pretty high-quality movie. I’m not saying it’s The Godfather Part II or anything; just that it in no way represents “dumbing down” in the way that Transformers does.

      • cj

        The bashing of Harry Potter is strange. It is the “freshest” wide release movie on Rotten Tomatoes this year, a critical success.

      • Josh

        Agreed. And the 5th best of the series? What’s he been smoking?

      • pastafarian

        For me, PoA > HBP > DHp1 > DHp2 > GoF > OoP > SS > CoS. I think it’s firmly in the middle someplace (give or take a step up or down), so yeah maybe “fifth worst” is accurate, although it clumsily sounds worse than it means to be.

    • Janet Snakehole

      I think Firth is right too. It extends beyond movies though and to entertainment in general. Music, tv, movies, books, they all seem to be playing to the dumest of the dumb. Make it as simple as possible so nobody leaves thinking. I don’t mind occasionally watching something that numbs my mind but I much prefer watching/reading/listening to something that makes me think. I feel like the entertainment industry thinks I’m an idiot and it makes me not really want to pay money to be talked down to for 90 minutes.

      • Templar

        ITA. That’s part of the reason I watch more shows on USA, TNT and A&E rather than the network dreck.

      • Kate

        I concur, at least on the music front. “Pop” music has always been a bit of a guilty pleasure, but the stuff on the radio lately is just mindnumbing dreck. If I have to hear another pop song lyric about drinking on the weekend and putting my drink up in the air, I’m going to scream. What’s worse, is that some of the pop stars singing this stuff are in their 40s. It’s time to put the dance shoes away dears and find some substance in life!

    • Gerry

      Agreed on the unnecessary Harry Potter knock. Really, you’re going to trash Harry Potter next to Transformers and The Smurfs?
      It’s practically Casablanca compared to some of the dregs of this summer!

  • Melody

    He’s right. Do film companies really think we don’t notice the amount of sequels they do? Is it really that hard to make a movie with SOME creativity?

    • orville

      They’ll keep making them as long as people pay to go see them. We can yell all we want against them, but as long as they keep making money, that’s what producers are going to want to make. Sure, the film industry may be underestimating their audience, but we still go to see “stuff blow up really good.” I’ll admit to liking a good summer, mindless, blow-em-up, but I like a good, thoughtful indie pic too.

  • Aubrey Watts

    I hope Colin Firth does more American mainstream movies from now on.
    It is unfortunate that his first post-Academy Award win film, ‘Main Street’ is only getting a limited release and we won’t find out how it would have done commercially if released nationwide.

    • Templar

      For years I’ve wanted Mr. Firth to portray Melrose Plant in the Martha Grimes series of Inspector Richard Jury novels. Preferably with Jude Law as Richard Jury.

    • Boom

      Just to tell you “Main Street” has gotten unsatisfactory reviews. There are FAR more better smaller films than “Main Street” out there.

      • Squee

        “more better”?

      • Audrey

        @Squee – I believe you’ve misread the sentence. “Far more” modifies the phrase “smaller films,” not “better.” This is a grammatically correct sentence, although it does have a fair number of adjectives.

      • Me Fail English?

        a comma mighta helped. See me after class.

  • Jude10

    Yes, he’s completely right. That’s why I hardly ever go to movies anymore and get my entertainment from superior TV shows.

  • Lula

    People go to films to be entertained. We assume the film will be good. We are still surprised that the lazy-ass
    writers, producers, and directors release these mediocre movies, and they are not humiliated to attach their names.

    • Boom

      Wait a minute…are you saying everything that comes out today is mediocre? If you are? Than you are greatly ignorant. So you meaning to tell me films like “The Social Network”, “Black Swan”, “The Town”, “True Grit”, “Toy Story 3″, “Win Win”, “Inception”, “The Help”, “127 Hours” & countless others just from the past 2 years have ALL been mediocre? That could be the most inane if not ignorant comment ever.

      • pastafarian

        The idea that “everything is crap” is prolly a bit hyperbolic, even in a doomsday scenario where Hollywood deliberately tries to squash All That Is Good In Moviemaking. But if you look at the top 12 grossing movies on RT this year so far, half are rotten, half are fresh. It’s a balanced split of “good” movies and “nonsense” movies, with Harry Potter listed as the best and Smurfs as the worst.

  • tvocrats

    Ummmm…. What A Girl Wants totally counts as outright sell-out.

  • Daisy Steiner

    He’s right. I live in a small city, and we never get any movies other than the big blockbusters in our theatres. If I want to see something clever or quirky, I have to scour the internet. Hollywood likes us all in neat little boxes according to our age and our sex and our incomes, and don’t expect that any of us would ever want to venture outside of them. Well, I’m a woman, and I HATE romantic comedies. I detest them. I’d rather see a comic book movie than sit through anything starring Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl. Sure, we all love a good brainless movie sometimes. But that shouldn’t be all that’s on offer. I don’t care what time of year it is. Look at The Help, for goodness’ sake. That’s been the top movie for a few weeks now, and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have any robots who transform into cars in it. People can go in droves to the theatre for movies other than crap ones.

  • Erin

    You forgot to mention that Colin Firth did “What a Girl Wants” starring Amanda Bynes in 2003. If that’s not a sell-out film, I need to relearn the definition for a sell-out film.

    • Erin

      Also, “The Accidental Husband” and “The Last Legion”. I still don’t know what he was thinking and what everyone involved in “The Last Legion” was thinking when they cast Colin Firth as a Roman commander action hero. This sounds like I hate Colin Firth, which is the completely opposite of how I feel about him. Why else do you think I saw “The Last Legion” if not because I love Colin Firth?

    • Jeanne

      I’m glad someone brought that up. He played second fiddle to Amanda Bynes for crying out loud, if that wasn’t a paycheck movie I don’t know what is. And then there was Bridget Jones’ Diary which was a clear case of stunt casting.

      I love the guy, but he’s sold out plenty.

    • Lynne

      Difficult to define sellout…a lot of Brit actors do horrible movies just so they have enough financial means to do the good ones. They are not paid as much as American actors because their industry is so small. And they have a culture of doing the work just so that they keep working there. It’s not like he is selling out with a product advertising campaign.

      • Lynne

        And it’s obvious that with the financial success of King’s Speech which he managed to get a huge cut of, the lesser crappy films he needed to do, eg he used to average 4 films a year but last year TInker, Tailor was all he did.

      • Templar

        Right, Lynne. As long as the script doesn’t go against his morals or ethics, sometimes an actor just has to pay the bills.

    • RuthO

      All Firth said was, “I do think there is a tendency to underestimate audiences… I do think there is an appetite to be stretched.” He did not say he never sold out, and he never said every movie he made was intellectually stimulating or better than anyone else’s. Don’t assume Firth holds the same opinions as the author of this article beyond precisely what this one quoted line states.

  • d

    Colin Firth is competely right. When did CGI become more of a draw in theaters than actual content? Yes I want to be entertained, but that, to me, means more than just visually stimulation. What about offering some original content instead of remakes? I’m saddened to say that the last movie I paid to see was Gran Torino. I’ve not seen a movie preview since then that made me sit up and say “I can’t wait to see that!”

    • Boom

      One, not everything today is a remake. Two, you mean to tell me you haven’t seen any other film since “Gran Torino”? Is that for just theatres or in general? If you think “Gran Torino” was the only solid film to come out since you are SADLY mistaken greatly with such ignorance.

      • pastafarian

        You can’t deny how many more movies today are remakes and sequels compared to movies made 15 (maybe even 10) years ago.

  • Matt

    Articles like this miss a pretty big point. Hollywood won’t make movies that they don’t think will make money at the box office and movies like Transformers make barges full of it. Now, that’s not the point I was talking about having been missed, that one is obvious, but it leads into this: the theater-going experience generally sucks. It sucks and it’s better suited for worse movies.

    Tiny seats, expensive concessions, and annoying people all suck. However, they suck MORE when it comes to movies that are more than eye candy. If all I want out of a flick is to see one robot punch another robot through a building then the guy in the next row texting his friend and the chatty teenagers next to me aren’t much of a distraction. In fact, they’re usually just drowned out. Contrast this with a “quieter” movie where I really want to get sucked in and those people are a huge problem.

    On top of this, I don’t gain anything from seeing more serious stuff in the theater over watching it at home. Again, if I’m watching giant robot fights then I want that on a huge movie screen with sound that I can feel but If I’m watching tense drama then, frankly, at home is just better for me. Those movies don’t require the big screen and loud sound that I don’t have plus my house DOES have better food, better drink, better seating, and better company.

    • Kat

      Two very good points.

    • orville

      Too true. I almost never go to see a movie in the theater unless it’s something that really needs to be seen on a big screen. Romantic comedies, indies, documentaries, etc. are all better at home as a rental where I don’t have to listen to someone chomping on popcorn, listen to someone recapping the movie, or endure someone kicking my seat. But “Transformers 23: Revenge of the Rust” is a big screen sort of event.

  • Aprilcot26

    I knew I liked him for more than just his talent…

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