Saturday, April 01, 2006

Doom and Gloom at the Movies

For the last sixty years, the movie industry has gone from crisis to crisis. In the 1950’s, it was the advent of television and the government-mandated divestment of movie theaters by the major studios. In the 60’s and 70’s, it was a cultural disconnect that both alienated the baby boomer audience and led to the birth of the independent film movement. In the 80’s, it was pay-TV and the threat of home video (which ultimately became the biggest money-maker for the movie industry,) and in the 90’s it was DVD, which pulled viewers from the theaters and put them on their couches.

Once again, the movie business is in crisis mode. Both ticket sales and revenues have either been flat or have fallen for the last three years. After years of double-digit growth, DVD sales (which have kept the studios afloat) have leveled off. HD DVD and Blu-Ray are an enormous question mark for both movie exhibitors and studios. Exhibitors are being pushed to make massive investments in digital projection equipment with no evidence whatsoever that it will either save money or increase attendance.

One of the industry’s dirty little secrets is that theater attendance has fallen steadily since the 1950’s. Increases in revenues from theatrical exhibition have come almost exclusively from higher ticket prices.

Privately, exhibitors blame the industry’s latest funk on lousy films. Studios blame exhibitors for too many ads before movies, an inability to control talking on cell phones and a lack of concern about picture and sound quality. They both have a point. Publicly, on the other hand, they blame their woes on piracy and technology, and they’re completely off-base.

I believe that the movie studios have fundamentally lost touch with their audience. As one studio after another attempts to up the ante with more and more sophisticated special effects, they seem to have forgotten that stories need to be compelling and characters need to be interesting. The major studios also seem to be in a race to make the most expensive movies, a race that’s been financed by the explosive growth of DVD sales. Now that the DVD market is cooling off, the industry’s cost fetish is no longer sustainable.

Consider a few recent examples: “King Kong” had great special effects and a couple of fine performances from Naomi Watts and Andy Serkis, but it simply shouldn’t have been made. Universal thought that it was a sure thing and put an estimated $300 million into producing and marketing it. Unfortunately, a large part of the potential audience had better things to do than watch a remake of a remake.

The second Star Wars trilogy: All three films were disappointments at the boxoffice, largely due to scripts and characters that never connected with the audience. Compare them with the Lord of the Rings trilogy: Both series of films had great special effects, but the Lord of the Rings trilogy also had a great script, compelling characters and great acting. The result was both tremendous artistic and financial success.

The major studios are trying to pull the coveted 12-to-24 year old male audience away from video games and the Internet, but they don’t have a clue about what that audience really wants. Think about it: Movies have been based on video games from Super Mario Bros. to Doom. None of them has been either artistically or financially successful.

As for the theater owners, they have only themselves to blame for customers fleeing in droves. Ticket prices are at an all-time high, but the audience has to cope with people talking on cell phones, screaming kids, lousy sound, mangled prints and out-of-focus projection. With more and more DVRs in use, television viewers can skip commercials, but the audience in many theaters is forced to watch an ever-increasing number of ads before the main attraction. Thanks to Wal-Mart and its ilk, DVDs don’t cost much more than a single nighttime movie ticket in large cities. It’s no wonder why more and more people are skipping the theaters and instead watching movies on demand and on DVD, at home.

The interesting thing is that all of these problems can be fixed by exhibitors today. In the old days, theaters had ushers who asked viewers who were disturbing other members of the audience to either quiet down or leave. Today, of course, the ushers clean the theaters between shows. Once upon a time, projectionists monitored films from beginning to end, and fixed problems when they happened. Now, one projectionist may be responsible for every projector in a theater with 24 screens, and much of the operations are automatic. If the film goes out of focus or the sound is too soft or loud, an audience member has to go find an usher or ticket taker to tell the projectionist to fix the problem. In the olden days, the only commercial you got was dancing popcorn, soda and candy singing “Let’s go out to the lobby and get ourselves a treat!”. Today, the audience is bombarded with ads dressed up to look like entertainment, but that are anything but entertaining.

The film industry is bleeding from self-inflicted wounds. They have no one to blame for their problems but themselves. Piracy and new technology are red herrings. Their problems will be solved with better movies and theaters run as if their owners actually cared about their audiences. Until then, they won’t see you at the movies.
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