Film Fund-amentals: The 2010 Predictions

The great thing about predictions is that few people ever go back a year later to find out where you were wrong. For example, I predicted a few months ago that Avatar wouldn’t necessarily make it past the billion dollar mark. OK, I was wrong. Big whoop! The profit from Avatar is pretty meaningless (unless you’re James Cameron, in which case it’s a massive dose of rampant ego validation).

However, it’s the start of a new year and the predictions are rolling in. A poll of studio executives and analysts from the Santa Monica Future of Film Summit has been made available (all over the web, no matter how much you try to hide from it). Likewise has produced a piece on the 10 Things Movie Theaters Won’t Tell You, which actually serves as a corrective for some of the projections from Santa Monica.

Not surprising for the industry experts is their continued belief in 3D as a cure for box office blues, the common cold and global malaise. They’re correct in their conviction that 3D will be coming at us no matter what. Heck, part of the move toward HDTV is to make our living rooms 3D friendly. There will be no escape from it (OK, to be honest I should confess that I am one of those folks who often get mild headaches from the process). The success of Avatar merely adds fuel to this fire. Actually, 3D is basically useless to most films, but uselessness has nothing to do with it.

Likewise, both the industry experts and the theater executives interviewed by view “alternative content” programming as a major niche market for the coming year. Sport events, concerts, and other non-cinema presentations will take on increased significance for cash-strapped commercial theaters. Presumably, all of this will also be in 3D (especially the football games, which actually would be more interesting in 3D – but I fear that baseball is more of a 2D event).

Ironically, both industry experts and the theater owners feel that there will soon be more room for smaller productions. In each case, there is the shared view that the drive toward digital production and distribution will result in films becoming cheaper to make and quicker to distribute, and that this will force a move away from blockbuster movies. In this particular case, both the experts and the owners are making a lot of good, clean common sense. Unfortunately, this doesn’t sound like anything we’re hearing from most of the major studios.

Instead, we are stuck with Avatar, the bogus confirmation of the studio’s most asinine assumptions. In principle, the movement toward the digital future (though the due date was kind of like yesterday) should result in lower production costs, extremely diverse means of distribution, and an increasingly decentralized system. But that’s not what the studios are seeking. They want large increases in the production budget (partly because this puts them more in control of the financial system) while maintaining extremely limited access to the distribution system. As for decentralization, forget it. You might as well advocate a Bolshevik Revolution at the next meeting of the National G.O.P. (though the way things are going for the Republicans, they may be ready to try this out).

Despite all indications that 2009 was not exactly a great year for the business, the official word is that the box office rose by at least 16 percent. Forget about the fact that ticket prices actually went up by slightly more than 28 percent (which suggests an actual drop of at least 10 to 12 per cent in the amount of tickets sold). Other figures are also a tad odd. Warner claims to have had a record-setting year of nearly $4 billion in global distribution. A quick independent check of publicly available figures does not exactly support this (it may actually be closer to $3 billion, tops). Likewise, the figure has to be offset by the basic production cost for the year, which is somewhere between $1.5 to 2 billion. This is actually a low-ball figure, and the best guess estimates suggest that Warner roughly broke even at best. Any form of accounting in the film business has to be taken with a grain of salt (preferably ingested with a good margarita). But the current gap between the ink and the facts is getting to be very troublesome, and virtually every aspect of the production and release of Avatar traces this widening canyon.

Which is why the move is on to convert everything into 3D while attempting to impose as much commercial control as possible over content distribution on the Internet and any other digital means (this is in part why you have the war against Redbox). Sure, the immediate future will consist of video on demand, downloadables, and mobile videos. The majors are fighting to control the future for their own corporate interests. Based on the wild history of digital development, it’s a safe bet that they’ll fail and fail miserably. But the major studios have just enough collective (and financial) weight to take hostages and throw as many monkey wrenches into the process as possible.

So the real question for 2010 is simple: How much more damage can these idiots do in their ludicrous attempt to strangle the future for their own misplaced sense of corporate greed? We shall all stay tuned.

In the meantime, if you want some real predictions I would personally suggest going to The Deep Friar web site. Each prediction is a virtual shoo-in for the coming year.