Thursday, May 12, 2005

The Quiet Revolt

Lost Crusade
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"Last weekend's box office turned out to be significantly worse than the studios' original Sunday estimates -- which had been dismal enough in their own right. Twentieth Century Fox's Kingdom of Heaven, which is believed to have cost between $120 million and $185 million to produce, earned just $19.6 million domestically, according to final figures from Exhibitor Relations. Reporting on the downturn in theater attendance, which has produced 11 consecutive weeks of lower box-office results than last year, today's (Tuesday) New York Times asked, 'Are people turning away from lackluster movies, or turning their backs on the whole business of going to theaters?'"
I was telling Martha, the other day, that I had noticed recently that I was just not getting excited about the movies that were coming out. It used to be that every trailer for an epic or big budget action movie was a must see event for me. I couldn't stop myself for standing in line all day for the Armageddon's, the Mission Impossible's, the Desperado's and the like.

But these days, what I consider comparable fare just doesn't do it for me. I had little to no desire to see King Arthur, or Alexander. And I haven't exactly walked out of many Hollywood produced movies totally fired up like when I wanted to eradicate every alien I saw after ID4.

My first thought was that I must be starting to outgrow it. This was a terrible, gut wrenching thought. If there comes a point in people's lives when they're no longer moved by films, then everything I know is just wrong. So I avoided thinking about it and just kept looking for movies, (with a pronounced leaning toward the independently produced fare) that I could get excited about. And I was successful enough to keep my mind off of it.

But reading this box office report puts some things into focus for me. It's not just me. There seems to be a collective ambivalence about the movies available right now. The selection right now, is actually not bad, when you think about it. You've got a historical Ridley Scott epic, a fun horror thriller, a quirky cult following sci-fi film. Nicole Kidman is on screen, with Sean Penn, Sin City is still around. So why are the theaters so empty? The state of films is certainly not worse than when Titanic was the ONLY thing showing and people's repeat 3-hour viewings drove it to the top of the all time box office charts.

To answer the question posed by the New York Times, I think it's less about the lackluster films and more about people turning away from the business of going to movie theaters. Don't get me wrong, the lackluster films have everything to do with it (it's telling that every 'successful' film in the past few months has dropped 50% of its attendance the week after it premieres). But there is a lot more to it. I passionately believe that it's not because there's no place for moviegoing in today's culture. But people don't want to go to the movies right now. And why would they want. There are so many films to see. It's hard to tell what's good because all trailers have been reduced to using the same generic dramatic devices and marketing techniques. It's an expensive experiment to actually try to go to see what's good when going to a movie in San Francisco costs you 10.50. And you still have to sit through ads. And buy popcorn that is marked up 1000%. When you can just wait to buy the movie on dvd in 3 months for the price of two movie tickets. Or better yet get it on netflix. Or better yet, download the pirated version for free.

When the alternatives are this compelling it makes it virtually impossible to go to the movies . And this includes the film lovers. The generations of people who are raised on movies and can't ever get enough, can't stand to pay to see a film at their local multiplex.

And the various sections of the business point at all the places along the way. Exhibitors will tell you that shortening theatrical windows dilute their market. The studios say that piracy is threatening artists' ability to benefit from their craft. But these are trends that have been made possible by improved technology and new media. Stamping them out is the farthest thing from the answer. The whole problem is that people know what it can be like, and they're disgusted that the exhibition industry would ever try to sell them anything less.

Without even knowing it, the public has turned against the industry of going to the movies. And as shepherds of this industry, the studios are the ones that need to organize everyone and take action. And not with ridiculous campaigns to stop pirates. (As an aside, the only way to stop pirates is to make their work meaningless, to be better at their game than they are. People obviously want downloadable movie content fast. Why not make it available. Only the most shortsighted viewpoint will really believe that this will diminish box office performance). The studios and distributors have long held all the negotiating power that limits the way exhibitors are able to do business. Since the vast proportion of the benefit generated in the industry has fallen to them, so does the responsibility.

-Studios/Distributors need to do something to allow movie theaters to reverse the epidemic of skyrocketing ticket prices. Bring the movie ticket back down to the point where going to the movies doesn't feel like a major investment. People will demand less from their movies, enjoy them more, and be willing to experiment more.

-Theaters need to drop the ads and studios need to help. Subsidize film rentals that don't include preshow ads or flat out require that preshow ads not be shown with films

-For gods sake, stop the marketing blitzes. Nobody responds them any more, and any marginal benefit they create by driving people to the movies is totally lost in the production cost they escalated and the long term effects of escalating marketing costs (and in desensitizing the entire civilized public. People can tell when they're being manipulated and they don't like it. So even if it worked in the past, and still seems to work, it really doesn't.

-Divert the anti-piracy efforts to creating a legal means for downloadable movie content.

-Improve the quality of films! Most studios have caught on to the profitability potential of independently produced film making and all have independent distribution arms. If you're not going to make anything good, just don't make anything and please stop selling it. Just keep buying and distributing the films that people actually cared to make. It'll work. I promise

-Establish an identity for the exhibition portion of the film industry. And apply the necessary resources to laying it down in practice. People need to know why they should come back to the movies. And right now there's no practical reason to do so. But people want the movie theater experience. And that has to be delivered to them

This needs to happen. When the box office continues to plummet, the studios are going to have to make a decision. Do they continue with their short-sighted designs to nickel and dime everyone they do business with and squeeze out every opportunistic cent they can. Or do they step up and ensure that their industry has a future by biting some bullets and reshaping it for an eager public.

For the record, I don't think the studios will change. Episode III will come in just like John Fithian says and save the day. But the industry will still be charging toward a messy end. Nothing's unfixable, even the continued decay of exhibition, but the sooner the studio's realize their responsibility the better. For everyone. There's everything to gain.


At 4:10 PM, Anonymous Mike C said...

I think much of the attendance downturn at movie theaters has to do with the environment at the theaters. First, the public seems to have the opinion that it's alright to dump trash and uneaten snacks on the floor and in the seats, something most adults would not do in their own home but feel it's acceptable at theaters; and, they allow their children to observe this disrepectful behavior and do likewise through their formative and adult years. Second, moviegoers no longer have the common courtesy to remain silent during the movie, whether it's unwarranted comments or explanations during the movie, ringing cell phones, failure to control disruptive behavior by infants or young children, and loud, obnoxious eating of noisy snacks like popcorn or nachos. Who in the world decided it was a good idea to begin serving messy nachos at theaters? Why should anyone subject themselves to this abuse at a movie theater when we can watch the same movies in the comfort and silence of or own homes. I believe that many former moviegoers feel the same way and have expressed their opinion via declining box office attendance.



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