Film Fund-amentals: The Post-Cinema Future

Who goes to the movies anymore? The question has practically become rhetorical as numerous critics, bloggers, entertainment reporters and the usual cranky suspects have loudly proclaimed that they haven’t gone to a theater in the last fifty years. OK, maybe not fifty years but you get the point.

The question has garnered a strong sense of relevance as the film industry is finally confronted with the inescapable fact that movie attendance in 2011 pretty much tanked. Officially, the initial figures being presented float between 3.5 percent and 4 percent. 2011 presents the lowest box office return since 1995.

Of course, these are all basic estimates and are lacking adjustments. For example, the BOR in 1995 was $5.29 billion and $9.42 billion in 2011. Looks good until you adjust for the dollar difference between the two years. $5.29 billion in 1995 would today be $7.89 billion, which brings the two totals a lot closer. Even more interesting is the plateau effect that one finds in the figures for actual tickets sold over the past ten years. From 2000 to 2002, there was a steady increase in attendance. From 2002 to 2004, you have a basic period of stability. But from 2005 onwards the figures develop a free fall (with the exception of 2009 — this is known as the Avatar effect).

No matter how you shake the figures, movie attendance is going south and everybody has an opinion. Last December, Roger Ebert gave his reasons for why attendance is dropping. At, they did a side show on their five reasons. Earlier this week my lawyer chewed up some billable hours (fortunately at another client’s expense) giving me his thoughts on the issue. Go on Goggle and you can spend a whole night trolling through online posts on this topic.

As you wade through all of these lists (usually a lineup of five top reasons — why five I don’t know), several issues stand out as the major points. First and foremost is the current cost of going to the movies. For the past several years, ticket prices have done a slippery slide upwards (except for the cost of 3D, which has taken off like a rocket). Everything else (for example concessions) has also gone through the roof. A family of four can expect to spend around $40 to $50 just to get into the theater, and if they end up at the concession counter, they can kiss the college fund goodbye. Hollywood insists that this isn’t really an issue because the cost of going to the movies is still cheaper than going to a professional football game. Not really a good comparison. Besides, they forgot to mention that this is one of the reasons why attendance at professional sporting events is also in steep decline. By the way, the actual cost at the stadium concession stand is arguably a little lower.

Add this to the other major recurring compliant: Why would anyone want to spend that kind of money on the crappy movies currently presented? This is a very touchy issue, because Hollywood will tell you that they don’t make crappy movies (heck, Chris Dodd will tell you that the crappy movies all come from Sweden). Oh sure, some of the movies may be slightly less than they had hoped, but everything they make is a solid piece of entertainment.

In the real world, Hollywood has always made a bushel full of crappy movies. Some of us even love crappy movies (Roger Ebert and I even share in some of the same favorites). Crappy movies are what once made Hollywood a cultural force. But in the old days, these were crappy movies that had the primitive and forceful ability to emotionally engage the viewer. Sometimes it felt a bit like a street mugging, but they were movies that could grab you by the throat, pin you against the wall and hold your attention. Most of today’s crappy movies lack that basic skill.

A perfect example was the release several years ago of the film Watchmen. In many respects, it was a surprisingly brilliant and carefully crafted adaptation of the graphic novel series. It had a high degree of artistic intelligence in its visual presentation. It was bold, extremely nuanced, vast and spectacular. But most of all, it was totally non-engaging at any emotional or basic psychological level whatsoever. Once the movie was over, you had a mild headache and no clear recollection of where you parked the car.

So you have a lot of non-engaging movies coming at you with an increasingly steep admission cost, and studio heads can’t figure out why lots of people are not going to their movies. Must be the fault of (reason number three) new technology. The lousy ingrates are staying home (if they still have a home) and watching recent movies on their TV (or laptop or iPhone or whatever). Basically, this is true. Why shouldn’t they? It’s a hundred times cheaper, and at least at home you can talk all you want through the stupid flick (and even go online while the movie is playing and Tweet about how bad it is).

But the rise of these new technological venues is neither a diversion nor a mere extension of the traditional distribution model for movies. It is a total transformation. The act of going to the movies used to be a primary form of entertainment. With the advent of television, the cinema became more of a secondary venue. It is now even less than that as it becomes an increasingly unnecessary process. At best, it has become a luxury (and one that an increasing number of people can’t afford). Any way you try to stack the deck (and Hollywood has been trying hard to stack it), the digital future is the only one that has any foundation in economic viability.

Which may be why my lawyer was slightly surprised by my response to his comment that he doesn’t much go to movies anymore. What could I do but roll my eyes and mutter, “Who does?” We have entered the post-cinema future and everything has changed. Within another ten years (or less), the movie theater will have about the same position as the classical concert stage: a specialized forum serving a limited audience for the presentation of an older art form.

The pop venue, whatever it evolves into, will be everywhere but in a theater.