Tent Poles and Tentpoles

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A reader wonders about a Hollywood term new to him:

Have been seeing Hollywood recently using the expression “tent poles”, but it’s not clear what they’re trying to express. Can you enlighten us?

Literally, a “tent pole” is a long stick that holds up a tent roof.

A good rule of thumb is to fold the tent about the same length as the tent poles before you roll it up. 

A palatka is a hut with a tent-pole all the way to the top.

I have seen tentpole used figuratively to refer to a tall person, the way Hermia uses maypole in her harangue against tall Helena:

How low am I, thou painted maypole? Speak.
How low am I? I am not yet so low
But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.

The OED offers an example of tent-pole used as an epithet in the list of compound words in the entry for tent:

His ugly, unmarriageable tent-pole of a daughter.

Tentpole in the context of entertainment was new to me. The OED does not include a definition for this use, but Merriam-Webster does:

tentpole noun: a big-budget movie whose earnings are expected to compensate the studio for its less profitable movies.

In some contexts, a tentpole movie is one that will make money with tie-in merchandise.

In television programming, a new, untried show is scheduled to follow a popular show—the tentpole—in an effort to keep viewers watching.

Tentpole movies are usually equated with high-budget blockbusters:

Universal Pictures has done away with the tentpole blockbuster…this year, at least

Paul Greengrass has defended Hollywood’s high stakes “tent pole” movie strategy, saying that big budget blockbusters are essential for the movie business.

For the last five years or so, the dominant studio strategy for combatting lower attendance and movies’ declining entertainment market share has been a focus on bigger movies – the “tentpoles”, in industry parlance, “four-quadrant” movies that appeal to every stereotypical member of the stereotypical family, targeting the largest possible audience.

An article in Forbes, however, speculates that less expensive films may be able to function as tentpoles:

We may have reached the point where cheap comedies are the new tentpoles.— “Neighbors May Represent The Future Of Tentpoles,” Forbes

In Hollywood jargon, a tentpole is a movie of any kind that can be expected to garner earnings beyond initial ticket sales, usually in the form of sequels and the licensing of related merchandise.

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2 thoughts on “Tent Poles and Tentpoles”

  1. The tentpole represents the highest part of the tent. Picture a circus tent, with its peaks and valleys. So figuratively, the tentpole represents the peak of something. I’ve heard it used in a couple of different contexts.

  2. I always think of a tentpole in this context as propping up the studio, which is what a tent pole actually does, thus distinguishing it from run of the mill movies, etc. In PR-speak, we use tentpole to talk about the big promo-worthy events and campaigns during the year, which require greater attention than the daily grind

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