Film Fund-amentals: The Only Constant

It is getting pretty hard to keep track of things. Just a year ago, 3D was the impending salvation of commercial cinema. Now, the suits of Hollywood are quaking at the thought that the 3D revolution is dead. OK, some folks predicted the possible short shelf-life of the process, but most of us still thought it would last a few more months.

Just last spring, there was the great discovery of how the opening weekend box office could be statistically predicted by way of Twitter. Various companies such as went to town with this method, and for a while it was looking pretty good (well, actually, the predications have been kind of drifting for the past several months). According to, the number one movie last weekend was going to be Easy A at $20 million with The Town barely limping at number two with a lousy $15 million opener. Since the actual figures were the other way around, I guess Ben Affleck just doesn’t Tweet well or something. Or maybe I was right that the highly fluid nature of any social media network is too unstable to work consistently as a database.

It has all been a reminder of what the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus meant when he said that change was the only constant. Or was it David Bowie? Either way, they were both right, and our entire culture is currently undergoing a massive state of flux. So what else is new?

The rapid rise and rumored fall of 3D is a no-brainier (and the format will be around for quite a while, it’s just losing the PR magic). Any novelty has a short lifespan. James Cameron has been one of the few directors who knew how to really use the format. The ticket price is just too darn high. So there is no mystery about it.

As for the use of Twitter as a predictive model for a movie’s opening box office, another no-brainier. Despite Twitter’s large base, it still makes for a limited demographic pool (as a rule, the most active users are primarily in the younger demographic range). In turn, any social media site is going to have unique ebbs and flows in its actual popularity among its range of users. Likewise, the core demographic model at Twitter is likely to be more oriented toward certain types of movies and genres than it might be toward other forms (and this predetermined orientation will not necessarily relate to the final popularity – or lack thereof – of certain movies). Finally, it is always possible that the two dozen nitwits who are really excited by something like The Walking Dead Eats Wolverine II have a lot of time to spend on the system and keep tweeting the movie into overdrive. Doesn’t mean a thing at the box office. So you’ve got a predictive model that will work part of the time, half work most of the time, and not work at all some of the time. Before the end of the year, they might want to try cross-referencing the system with psychics reading tea leaves.

Through a good chunk of 2009, Hollywood was insisting it was recession-proof. By the end of the year, the outrageous success of Avatar was presented as a vindication of this view. Thank god for Avatar. Its ludicrous high profit is one of the few things still propping up the take for 2010. Otherwise, the American box office has been limp at best. Ironically, the European box office has been way ahead of the American market for reasons that nobody has much bothered to explore. This is partly due to Hollywood’s long-standing sense of xenophobia (we’re supposed to be telling Europe how to run things, not the other way around). But it’s also due to the basic fact that few people in this country are currently thinking straight (at least few of the people who actually run anything over here).

Which may be the reason why the full promise of digital presentation is not being truly realized at the moment. With the new joint venture between Deluxe and EchoStar, direct satellite delivery of movies to theaters is about to become a reality. Potentially, digital distribution is dirt cheap (I say “potentially” because large businesses have a funny way of ramping up the cost). This would make it even more feasible to offer a wider range of presentations at the theater (ranging from tent-pole productions to oddball indies – maybe even presenting both in a stacked arrangement within the same theater). The greater mix should have the potential for reinvigorating the box office through broader and more diverse offerings.

But mostly we’re going to be stuck with a lot of young actors running around in spandex costumes in search of a plot line. The illogic of the tent pole business model is obvious to most everyone except the folks running the movie industry. Sure, they are routinely spending $200 million (or more) on movies that generate a rough profit of 10 bucks by the end of their run. They are sort of making a profit (much the same way that taking a ball bat to your head “cures” a headache). And they really do like big numbers (which is one of the major reasons why they don’t like indie movies – they can’t get excited about a mere $10 million budget). It may have something to do with penis size. It certainly has nothing to do with the frontal lobe.

An Irish poet once said that “the centre cannot hold.” These days, the American movie industry doesn’t even have a center, which may be the reason it feels like everything is starting to fly apart. The only certainty is that the pace of change will accelerate and most of what we think we know will soon be wrong. Even what I just said in this blog piece will soon be wrong.

It is changing that fast.