Film Fund-amentals: Changing the Game

The 3D revolution is supposed to be the salvation of the Hollywood commercial film industry. Or is it about to devour the industry? This is actually a pretty important question, because we have now been hit with the first two major punches (Avatar and Alice in Wonderland), and some definite trends are obvious. 3D movies are bringing in a lot of viewers (record numbers). But they are mostly taking audiences away from everything else, and the weekly box office figures are starting to resemble the Grand Canyon.

Since the opening of Avatar (and with only a few occasional, brief exceptions), the number one movie in the weekly box office report has been a 3D extravaganza. But the really interesting issue is the immense difference between the number one and number two weekly grosses. For example, for the week ending last January 14, the number one film was Avatar with a gross of $69,926,708. Number two was Sherlock Holmes with a weekly tally of $21,625,634. Both films opened about the same time, and both were successful big-budget movies playing to similar audiences. But you have a gap of about $48 million dollars, and this difference doesn’t get any better in other match-ups.

Even one of the few non-3D movies that did well during this period only did so within the standard model of modern releases. Shutter Island had a first week gross of $52,876,066 (while Avatar had $21,183,640 in its tenth week of play). By week two, Shutter Island was still number one but with a drop to $29,648,528, while Avatar (in its eleventh week) was hanging in at $19,584,548. Virtually everything else was averaging lunch money.

Currently, much the same pattern is happening with Alice in Wonderland. Granted, Tim Burton’s epic flight of whimsy has been suddenly challenged (ironically) by The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, but Alice in Wonderland is still holding strong going into its fourth week of release. So on the surface, the 3D gambit appears to be performing as the major game-changer that Hollywood was claiming.

Or is it just changing the rules of the game? Basically, the box office returns for 3D movies have gone totally outside the standard model. In truth, they’ve gone outside any rational model and seem to exist in some strange land of their own. Meanwhile, almost everything else is barely making a return that would be normal for a modestly successful indie movie. There is no spillover effect from 3D movies. Instead, they simply channel the available audience into the 3D movie, and you can pretty much get a theater to yourself for just about every other title.

Which isn’t exactly good for business. Normally, I’m not the kind of person who yells fire in a crowded theater, but I’m picking up a whiff of smoke in the back row. Admittedly, the 3D novelty factor is part of the picture. Like pet rocks, the Nehru jacket and bell bottoms, 3D movies are the latest fad, and eventually the allure might fade. However, I doubt it. Too much technological development is underway to 3D the public at every turn, and everything indicates that we’ve barely entered the first stage of this revolution.

However, this also suggests that the emerging phase will be a highly schizophrenic period in which a movie will have to be either a 3D epic or a low-budget indie. It appears that the middle tier of movies is about to be wiped out, leaving the field divided between the extremes. This is not exactly good for mainstream movies. At the moment, it looks very, very bad. Many of these films are only going to make about $40 to $50 million at the box office, and with budgets averaging from $25 to $50 million for a basic mainstream film, they are facing deep problems.

On the other hand, Diary of a Wimpy Kid was made for about $15 million and will cover itself by next weekend. The current non-3D box office model basically favors the lower budget. Though it is way too early for indie filmmakers to start dancing in the street, they’re actually working in the right financial range for the new model.

OK, this is sort of like begging for crumbs from the table of the 3D overlords. And the whole system is still in deep flux. Before the end of this coming summer, the model will change yet again. But currently this broken glass is at least half full, and the new realities actually lean toward small-budget indie movies as a crucial part of the model.

Sometimes we have to be thankful for small favors. After many long years of crappy low budgets, the indie cinema is now (economically speaking) right on target. Sure, the budgets are still crappy, but now it’s a lifesaver rather than a noose.

Granted, it’s starting to sound like that “new flesh” line from some of David Cronenberg’s old horror films. The cinema is dead; behold the new cinema.