Film Fund-amentals: After the Deluge

Yes, it is now official. The Avatar tsunami is over.  The waters are receding and we can finally observe the debris field. Though Anderson Cooper has yet to cover this disaster, he might as well start interviewing the survivors. Heck, George Clooney could turn it into a telethon.

In many respects, the mighty blue wave is pretty meaningless. As was the case with Titanic, James Cameron’s blockbusters don’t leave a very lasting impact on the cultural scene. It’s a bit like dating Warren Beatty. You have some fun, get a few quick thrills, but there’s no way you’re planning the rest of your life around it.

But Avatar has succeeded in demonstrating the new and extremely schizophrenic structure of contemporary cinematic presentation. It isn’t just the issue of 3D, though that’s the most obvious effect of the film’s success. Virtually every major big budget film that’s going into production is being geared toward 3-D. Every major movie that has already been shot is being converted into 3D. Eventually, older movies will be converted and re-released in 3D. I have to assume that George Lucas (who has been working on his own 3D system) will eventually do this with the original Star Wars trilogy. Why not? He’s pulled every other trick in the book.

Theaters are caught in a mad rush to switch to the digital 3D format, but they’re still running way behind in converting. With a cost ranging anywhere from $100,000 to $150,000 per screen, the conversion process is threatening to send many theaters into the financial red zone. Some companies, such as IMAX, are actually paying for the cost of conversion. They’re not doing this as an act of charity; they’re simply taking over. Let’s be honest, the extra $3 to $4 you’re paying at the box office barely covers the cost of those Elvis Costello-styled glasses.

For now, a mad rush of 3D movies is storming a small number of theaters. That’s why the sudden box office drop for Avatar has actually been a plus for Hollywood. With the impending March 5 release of Alice in Wonderland, Disney would like Cameron to clear out so they can use the same space. The 3D stampede is already starting to resemble the Oklahoma Land Rush as staged in Rhode Island. There just isn’t enough space for all these movies, and due to the cost of the theater conversion process, the situation isn’t about to change soon.

So all of the big-budget movies are preparing to stage a mammoth head-on collision, which is sort of OK. With the exception of Avatar, the theatrical life span of most of these films will not be all that great. Actually, the major studios could just cut a gentleman’s agreement and start rotating these suckers on some kind of every-other-week basis. Or maybe just start stacking the daily screening schedules. Commercially, there wouldn’t be as much of a difference as they might think.

But the real negative effect will be on everything else in the theaters. 3D may be just another dog-and-pony show, but the dog is getting fatter and the pony is pretty old. A movie like Avatar is its own event. It doesn’t have much of a spillover effect to the other screens, which leaves the theater operator in an odd situation. Suddenly, mere movies are just too mundane.

So “special event” presentations have become the new buzz. Not exactly an original idea, since various sporting events have already become a steady sidebar at many multiplexes. The Metropolitan Opera has also done frequent presentations. But the list will grow in 2010. On Jan. 30, Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck attempted to take their misnamed The Bold and Fresh Tour to 400 selected screens for a live broadcast. Though a winter storm derailed the event, they’ll be back — along with everyone else, from NASCAR to football to anything that can be acquired for theatrical transmission, as the average multiplex becomes an extension of cable TV.

All of which sounds bad for independent films — unless something can be done to make them an event. Actually, this is starting to happen. There have been successful combination movie/rock concerts done at selected theaters. But it needs to go further. Since the current special events model being used at theaters is an extension of cable TV, why not use that as the basis for a theatrical version of an independent channel?

The Sundance Channel has already experimented with this format, but it can be taken even further. Through a combination of cable providers and regional media centers, a network for weekly presentations of independent movies at theaters can be done (regional efforts have already demonstrated this point). It can be done on a national scale. The organizational effort would be complicated, but by no means impossible. It could even be worth it for one of the major studios to take this under its wing as an experimental effort. The system would provide a vital research group for what is an otherwise unpredictable audience. The main resistance would be with the theaters. But what would they really have to lose?

Not much. They are already being whittled at from every other direction. A once-a-week special independent film presentation would be the least of their worries. Besides, indie moviegoers eat just about as much popcorn as anyone else (except for that “butter” stuff).

As a repairman once told me, “There are so many ways this could go right.”