Changes in the Guilty Pleasure Information Cascade

Originally Written for Hollywood Economics at Emerson College, taught by Dr. Tylor Orme

Indulging in our guilty pleasures has always been, and will always be, a cornerstone of life. For a long time though, they were kept secret—hidden actions and activities that did just as the name implied: inspire guilt even as we revelled in the pleasure of consuming them. We kept things as secret as possible until, in hushed tones, we admitted our obsessions to people we thought we could trust. We would go to the movies in the shame of the night, and keep our dirty deeds quiet until someone else was brave enough to mention the film, or until the box office results came out and that “shameful” movie was the top grossing of the weekend. Now though, the game is changing.

With the rise of streaming services and social media platforms, the way in which we talk about movies in general has changed. However, guilty-pleasure films have cornered themselves into having only two options for how their information cascades. You either pretend like you haven’t even heard of the movie in question, stopping the information from spreading and keeping bad movies from getting the, “disrespect they deserve” (Queenan). Or you can turn the shameful movie into a meme, spreading information about how bad it is and encouraging people to go see it so they can be a part of the joke. But if these secret audience movies are going to continue making a profit, the industry will have to adapt to the change.

First though, I want to define the specific types of movies I’m talking about. For the purpose of this analysis, I’m only talking about new releases. By doing this, I’m omitting cult-following, “so bad they’re good” movies that have their own set of economic and psychological questions—Troll 2, The Room, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (among many, many others) are excluded. By focusing on new movies (movies that were released after streaming was prevalent) we can better see how their information cascade has been impacted and better predict how the Hollywood will react. Also, many of those cult following movies are truly terrible, with production that throws the rules of Hollywood in the trash entirely. Of course, there are some new movies that are, in fact, terrible (A Christmas Prince is the one I’ll reference the most), but those ones seem to be purposefully and nauseatingly simple. This is in direct contrast to movies like The Room, which tried so hard to be brilliant that film students will still argue that it’s actually good.

Now that we’re past definitions, let’s talk about the first option for this information cascade: avoiding association completely. In this case, we see movies that may actually be good for their intended audience, but that intended audience is so niche that the viewers are never going to tell anyone else that they actually watch the films. This has largely been made possible by the creation of streaming services. Netflix tracks that I watched Riverdale, A Christmas Prince, and Bridget Jones’ Baby, and suggests I watch The Perfect Date. I will eventually watch it, and I’ll probably love it, but I won’t tell anyone I’ve watched and loved it unless I’m feeling particularly honest on my finsta. The Perfect Date isn’t bad enough that shaming it will become a world-wide phenomenon, so it’ll remain only watched by those who watch it in secret. This is easier for Netflix to manage financially, but it isn’t limited exclusively to Netflix films. While the Fifty Shades series made a huge profit in box office (passing the $1B revenue mark with the third and final movie, according to the Hollywood Reporter), none of the movies were something individual people (women, mostly) wanted to talk about, except with their closest friends. The fact that the trilogy was scandalous and based on an even-more-poorly written (but still-popular) book series is what brought people to the theatres. But they weren’t movies people wanted to broadcast that they saw on opening day (Valentine’s Day, every year), like people do with other huge profit movies (a current example is Avengers: End Game with its huge opening day social media presence). The Fifty Shades series created movies that a huge number of people waited to see until they could find it online, so no one else would know they were participating in the success of it. This “hide your shame” response is one that often happens to movies that society as a whole deems bad—the idea of “chick flicks” exists to shame women in particular. So people who don’t want to be shamed, or people who want to pretend they’re better than that part of culture, will wait to participate until it’s safe.

The second option for this information cascade is to turn our shame into a joke for everyone to enjoy. This outcome mostly happens to two types of movies.

The first type are movies that had huge budgets, only to find out in the end that they’re actually sort-of bad, and there’s nothing they can do to fix that fact. The production company still has to make up some of their money though, so they keep it on a wide-release schedule with hope that there’s enough good marketing to make people see it on opening weekend. But then, after everyone has seen it, information gets out that it’s a truly terrible movie. Memes spread across the internet, and it ends up that more people know about the movie and go see it because they heard it was so terrible and they want to participate in the jokes. The best example I could think of for this is Suicide Squad. After opening weekend, everyone was making the same “God help anybody that dared to disrespect his queen” joke, and you had to go see the movie to make sure you weren’t missing out, even if you would have never watched a DC movie otherwise. But when anyone would mention in person that they saw Suicide Squad after opening weekend, the question “Why?” would still come up because it was bad and everyone knew it. The guilty-pleasure-type shame remained when it existed in the real world, but online, it was a pop-culture masterpiece. Realistically, this is the ideal outcome for a big-budget, terrible movie. Suicide Squad supposedly turned a profit, and I would bet that the memes are a large part of what made it happen.

The other type of movie that succeeds off of the meme-information-cascade are movies that were created for the sole purpose of being made fun of online. I would argue that A Christmas Prince is one such movie. A Christmas Prince never tried to pretend it was a good movie. It’s full of plot holes, poorly-done tropes, bad dialogue, and thrown-together or reused set design, yet everyone had to see it when it was released (Read). It’s modeled after the Hallmark Channel’s entire spread of qually-bad rom-coms, and yet, none of the Hallmark movies have reached the social media stardom that the Christmas Prince series has. Part of that is simply the fact that it was Netflix’s first version of a Hallmark movie, so everyone wanted to see how they did. But unless every online blog was writing about how perfectly bad it was, it would have just been another long-tail Netflix film that only gets suggested to niche rom-com audiences. A Christmas Prince was able to break out of that corner of rom-com netflix because they designed it to be bad enough for everyone to enjoy collectively.

I would also argue that this strategy is the future of guilty-pleasure films. We all love them, we all love to feel good about how smart we are in comparison to these bad movies (Beasley). But if the industry is going to survive the streaming-created ability to conceal your guilt, they’ll have to specifically make movies where the pleasure of telling your friends how bad it is outweighs the guilt.

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