Film Fund-amentals: Where Movies Have Gone Before

The really fun thing about beating a dead horse is knowing that you can’t be doing any more damage than already has been done. This is the secret mantra of anyone who works as a regular film critic. The same is true of anyone trying to analysis this business. No matter how much you whack with the stick, the same nagging issues keep coming back.

Take, for example, the current weekend box office reports. I just spent a solid half hour Monday morning having my teenage fanboy son explain to me why the new Star Trek film is a hit. After all, it took in an estimated $76.5 million during its opening weekend. Oh whee!

Of course, this simply means that Star Trek will quickly go where many other films have gone before as it proceeds to drop (and possibly drop fast) in the weeks ahead. Yes, it is following the same pattern as Watchmen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. This pattern will dominate the summer, and by next fall the hot media story will be the crash of the summer blockbusters. Entertainment Weekly will do an “insightful” report (with full photo spread), and numerous studio honchos will go to work re-inventing the same ideas (only different this time, like every other time). By next spring, the hot buzz will be the return of CinemaScope.

It’s no mystery why this is happening. Well, maybe it’s a mystery as long as we all continue to side-step a few basic facts.

One basic fact (as I have stated several times in these columns) is that the process of investing $150 to $250 million dollars in a movie in hopes of making $150 million back isn’t exactly a sound business model. It wouldn’t even work in Vegas. Especially since the backup to the box office is DVD sales. Too bad DVD sales are going to flatline (they’re headed that way already). That reason is also pretty simple.

We are in a state of depression. Not recession. Depression. Everybody is doing a funny little dance around the word. But, like the elephant in the room, it simply will not go away.

There are two prime indicators of when a nation enters depression, and we have basically passed both of them (not that you would know this from any news reports). The first occurs when a state of recession lasts for over a year. The idea is that when the economy goes into recession, moves must be immediately taken to pull out of it or else.

In one of the most under-reported major news stories of the past two centuries, the federal government finally announced early this year that the United States entered recession in December of 2007. This means that the federal government knew that we were in recession by no later than February of 2008 (and even that assumes that everyone at the White House and in Congress is a slow reader). However, this news was suppressed throughout 2008 (OK, they were hoping to suppress it through the whole election spin, but, well, a few major financial busts happened along the way). This is actually the worse case of criminal negligence since September 11. So it’s a good thing that no one seems too upset about it.

But it does mean that nothing was done to correct the situation, and the recession was allowed to fester its way toward depression. The belated panic reaction that went into high gear just before the election was, most likely, too late. The result is kind of like treating gangrene by popping the patient with Viagra.

The second indicator is having double-digit unemployment for over six months. Officially, the U.S. unemployment figure is at 8.9 percent. But this isn’t exactly the real figure. The unemployment figure is based on those who are currently on the unemployment rosters. Lots of unemployed people have remained unemployed long enough to have fallen off the roster (they are the ghosts in the system). They are not counted. As a general rule, you can easily add anywhere from 2 to 4 percent to the official figure (that was certainly true back in the 1980s and 1990s). Right now, you can probably double the figure. Either way, real unemployment is running anywhere from 14 percent to (maybe) as high as 16 percent. Either way, it’s a double digit and has been for a while.

So what does this mean to the movie business? For starters, fewer people are going to be paying to go to movies. Likewise, they are going to be increasingly reluctant to buy DVDs. They are even going to hesitate to rent DVDs. The market will go into a state of constriction. No technological gimmick or jazzy high concept will change this fact. For some people, it’s already a choice between Wolverine and food on the table. I live in Ohio. This has become a daily reality.

Then there is the other little issue that I have previously alluded to, and which I’m sure will need to be expanded on in the near future. A crisis period such as the one we’re now entering will result in a major change in audience taste and perception. The historical record is extremely clear on this issue. For the past three decades, we’ve lived with a cinema devoted to affluence. It was a period in which visual spectacle evolved to its most bloated but sophisticated level. It was an age of mindless excess and glorious feats of infantile fantasy.

It is over. Period. Whatever comes next is, for now, a mere shadow around the corner. But it’s out there, waiting. It will be different, and no one in Hollywood will have a clue.

— Dennis Toth

Read Dennis Toth’s comments in a feature article by Christian Toto on, “Summer Staying Power.”