The following is largely from a previous blog post from 2006, updated a bit to reflect the current state of MAD‘s movie parody output today:
I get questioned a lot about the state of MAD movie parodies, usually from people lamenting them as shorter, less frequent and targeting only blockbusters than the ones in the past. There was a time when the latest issue of MAD could be counted on to have at least one movie parody and one TV show parody in it, and often more than one. The parodies averaged over 6 pages in length, and the targets were usually highly regarded dramas and films that were either critically acclaimed, box office hits, or both. Artsy, off the wall films like “A Clockwork Orange” got the MAD treatment as often as films like “The Godfather”, and “JAWS”. MAD seemed equally interested in skewering movies that took themselves too seriously as they did ones that sold a lot of tickets. Parodies would show up in the magazine an average of 3 months after the month of their initial release. Artists like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis and Angelo Torres, along with writers like Arnie Kogen, Stan Hart and Dick DeBartolo made the movie parody a MAD trademark.
Fast forward to today. It’s been pointed out that whole issues go by without a movie parody in them. When the parodies do show up, they are often short (5 pages seems to be the typical size now), and the only movies that get attention seem to be the mega blockbusters, regardless of the worthiness of their content. The last really critically acclaimed drama I remember doing for MAD was “Brokeback Mountain” waaaay back in 2006).¬¨‚Ä† Oscar nominated films like “Argo”, “Lincoln”, “American Hustle” and “The Wolf of Wall Street”, which might seem ripe for the MAD treatment, are passed over in favor of big blockbusters and sequels like “The Hunger Games”, “The Hobbit”, “Harry Potter”, etc. Even films that were box office disappointments but still had that high profile buzz like “Green Lantern” and “Van Helsing” made it over more dramatic and less popcorn-eating fare. The last Oscar best picture winning movie I can remember MAD doing a parody of was “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” in 2003, and that was a rare exception where big blockbuster meets Oscar gold.
So what happened? Why the change in MAD‘s direction with movie parodies? I don’t believe there has really been that much of a change in MAD‘s philosophy. The major changes have been in the dynamics of the movie industry itself, which I feel is forcing MAD to alter their approach to one of the most popular aspects of their magazine.
Back in the 60’s through the 80’s and even into the 90’s, the way movies were distributed and shown was very different than it is today. There were no giant 20 theater cineplexes, and movies did not open on 3,000 screens coast to coast on the same day. Most towns outside the largest of cities had only a few theaters, and they mostly had one screen each. Films were released in stages, starting with their ‘premiere’ in the biggest cities: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc. There would be a lot of buzz and reviews and articles in the paper about the films, even though only a small part of the country had the movie playing at all. After they played in the big cities for a while they began to trickle down to the minor cities, then the bigger towns, then the smaller towns, and finally the one theater towns. In this way movies played for many, many months and seeing them was a much bigger event than it is today. There were many times, other than opening day, where you literally couldn’t get a ticket to see a film for weeks because there were far more people wanting to see the film than there were available seats, so successful films routinely played for many months. Today you can go to one of probably 3 cineplexes in even a smaller town on a whim and go into a half empty theater to see a just released movie. No lines, no sell outs. No longer an event. Films now have a significantly shorter shelf life, many are out on DVD when their counterparts in the 70’s were still playing in theaters. Films themselves have changed a lot since the advent of the “blockbuster”. Back in the day, Oscar contending films were also the ones that made the money and stayed in theaters the longest. Today Oscar winners often tend to just do decent in ticket sales, whereas the popcorn-eaters make the big bucks but get ignored critically, mostly because they don’t deserve critical attention.
These changes in the film industry have changed the way MAD approaches the movie parody somewhat. While it’s always been MAD‘s philosophy that it’s pointless to do a parody of a film nobody has seen or cared about, the incredibly short runs of today’s movies compared to yesterday’s means that they mostly stick with the extremely high profile mega-blockbusters, and it’s rare that those films are Oscar contenders. Whereas in the past MAD could write, draw, edit and publish a film parody and have it on the stands in 3 months and still have the film both in theaters and on the minds of readers, today by the time 3 months go by there have been 8-10 more recent “big movies” or wannabe blockbusters out, and the film getting lampooned is in the dollar theaters if MAD is lucky, and totally gone from the scene and the public’s eye if they are not. The parody seems outdated even though the turn-around time is no different than it was years ago for MAD. This change in dynamics makes movie parodies very hard to work in today’s world. I think this has led to less frequent film parodies and (for a while) the advent of trying to do the parody BEFORE the release of the film, working from scripts and trailers in an effort to be more timely with the content. I’ve said before here that I prefer seeing a film first when doing a parody of it, since there is so much more to a movie than the script, but I understand the reasoning in both a reader’s interest and purely sales point of view. By the way, MAD has largely given up on the approach of doing a film parody beforehand… scripts are often not accurate to the actual film and I think it became too unreliable to do them like that for both writer and artist.
As for the shorter length, that seemed to be an editorial trend for a while but is getting back to an average of six pages again. Perhaps they were catering to the shrinking attention span of today’s youth, or maybe they just wanted to make room for other content. The juries still out on that one, but as I said the length had been going back to mostly six pages for a typical parody. I even did a rare eight pager with “Orange is the New Black” a few issues ago.
Personally I would like to see more film parodies in MAD, and not just so I can draw them, but I understand how the timing and dynamics have changed the game siginificantly. I’d also love to work on more meaty films like the “Dallas Buyer’s Club” types as opposed to the “Harry Potter 14’s”, but again I get the problem with that. Don’t get me wrong, I love working on any movie parody, they are always fun and challenging. I’m just hoping the movie parody doesn’t become even more of an endangered species than it seems to be now.
One thing MAD has done to take advantage of the changing of today’s media consumption is to do more parodies of TV series… not network shows but “series” in the sense of some of the binge-watching phenoms that are today’s big watercooler subjects. The serial nature of these shows, and the advent the way consumers are watching them at their convenience and not necessarily every week, makes them perfect for a well-timed parody. MAD can get a parody in an issue that coincides with the mid-season premier of a cable series, a fall premeier of a new series of a network show, or the release of an entire season for a Netflix series. “Orange is the New Black” is a perfect example of that.
Times, they are a’changin’. MAD has had to roll with them, making major changes in the last 10 years or so. It’s a big challenge for them and I have a lot of respect and confidence in the editorial staff at MAD that they’ll make the changes they need to in order to keep the magazine fresh and publishing for another 60 years.
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