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Are the movies dying? 26 Jun 2005 19:36 #11567

  • Mike
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A thoughtful piece from the Boston Globe reviewer with some good food for thought.

Are the movies dying?
By Ty Burr, Globe Staff | June 26, 2005

Let me rephrase that. Are movies the way we have understood them for several generations -- as suspenseful and/or comic and/or soul-altering shadow plays shared by large audiences in theatrical settings -- in their red-star end stage?

Don't dig the grave just yet, but, yes, they probably are.

This is more than standard, cyclical hand-wringing. Movie theaters are enduring their worst slump in two decades: Despite such recent opening-week successes as ''Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," ''Mr. & Mrs. Smith," and ''Batman Begins," summer box office is down 10 percent from 2004, and the year as a whole is down 7 percent. True, a little movie called ''The Passion of the Christ" skewed last year's figures, but grosses have been dropping for three years now, and, worse, after you adjust for inflation, it becomes clear that attendance is down even further, anywhere from 8 to 10 percent depending on who's talking.

People are simply not going to the multiplex as often as they used to. The question is not only why but whether the trend is reversible or if it's part of a much larger cultural shift in the way we entertain ourselves. Results of an AP-America Online poll released this month strongly supported the latter, with 73 percent of respondents saying they prefer to watch movies at home and only 22 percent saying they would rather go to a theater.

The easiest explanation for the slump is that the movies have gotten lousier, and, indeed, almost half the AP-AOL respondents agreed with that sentiment. It's hard to dispute when you're limping from the combined onslaught of ''House of Wax," ''A Lot Like Love," and ''The Longest Yard." Oddly, Hollywood feels comfortable with this argument since it implies that better movies will fix everything. The studios are certain they can do that, as long as ''better" means bigger and noisier.

Nostalgia aside, though, movies aren't really demonstrably worse than five years ago, or 10, or 20. (This argument stops holding water when you get to 1939.) Spring 2005 also brought us ''Sin City," ''Kung Fu Hustle," and ''Cinderella Man," big-screen experiences that do what they set out to do with skill and creativity. In our selective cultural memory we forget not only the terrible films that came out when we were young but also the endless reels of mediocrity. They weren't all ''Chinatown," Jake. Many of them were ''Freebie and the Bean." Never heard of that one? I rest my case.

Another much-bandied argument is that going to the movies is less pleasurable than it used to be. Now we're getting somewhere. When my wife and daughters and I head to the multiplex to see the latest Pixar or ''Fever Pitch" or what you will, the experience is often about everything but the movie. It's about costly tickets, snacks priced at three times the market rate so the theater owner can cover his ''nut," 20 minutes of aggressively loud commercials and coming attractions, followed by a print unspooling with a big green gouge in it while two morons in the row behind us talk about somebody named Denise. In the early 21st century, that's entertainment, and that's a problem.

Granted, you have to feel for the theater owners; film exhibition is a hard business with a nasty profit margin, and the studios hold most of the cards. Expensive popcorn and commercials can sometimes mean the difference between solvency and a dark screen.

But -- and here's the nub of the dilemma -- why should we put up with it when the home-viewing experience can be as good, if not superior? Why shell out $40 for sticky floors when you can buy the DVD for $20 and watch it on your plasma TV with Dolby 5.1 surround sound? Or punch it up on-demand for $4.95 and pause whenever you need to run to the kitchen? The medium has evolved, as mediums do, in the direction of ease and efficiency. If there's still a reason to go to a movie theater -- call it communal dreaming -- exhibitors are chipping away at it to make their weekly payroll.

Worse, with the gradual shortening of time between the theatrical and home-video ''windows" -- once it was a year before you could rent a copy; now the norm is four months -- there's little incentive to see a movie early. Hollywood doesn't care, since the studios make almost three times as much money from DVDs than from movie theaters; while the box office has been sagging, DVD sales and rentals have increased 676 percent since 2000. In effect, the big-screen version now functions as an ad to raise brand awareness for the home-video release.

You can still get teenagers and college kids into theaters if you promise sensation and star-wattage; for the under-30 crowd, going to the movies remains an accepted social event. A lot less than it used to be, though, because competition is fierce. The multiplex is one diversion out of many, including the Internet (usage up 76 percent in five years) and video games (up 20 percent). Now that TiVo and other digital video recorders have broken the shackles of television's programming grid, it's possible to stay home and catch that episode of ''Gilmore Girls" you missed. Or you could just illegally pirate films off the Net.

As for grown-ups, the film industry has by and large written them off. This may be a smart business move -- most of my peers are too exhausted to do much beyond popping in a Netflix movie and falling asleep 30 minutes later -- but it leaves filmmakers and audiences with depressingly few options. In the Hollywood calendar, there is Academy Award season and there is the rest of the year, with the Oscars continuing to represent the industry's lip service toward quality product. It's worth noting that the major studios no longer bother with straight-up dramas and awards bait, leaving such films to boutique wings that know how to turn a movie out cheaply. Even then, profits are rare.

Yes, there are foreign and smart indie films -- movies that, outside of a Michael Moore-size fluke or random ''Napoleon Dynamite" explosion -- play to a tiny fraction of the moviegoing public. And there are savvy art-house theaters like the Coolidge and the Brattle and the Kendall and the West Newton that cater to a self-selective audience of informed culturati. With luck, such theaters will survive as shrines to an art form and to the best way to see it. Just as jazz started mutating in the 1950s from a commercial sound into music for cerebral iconoclasts, so too do the most creative impulses of American film now play to the converted in small, clublike settings.

By contrast, the larger arena of mass-market movies is on the verge of a profound morph, one whose dimensions we can only guess at. For a hint as to how that might unfold, consider the revolution pop music is currently undergoing -- a radical transformation not of content but of distribution and perception. Albums and their associated tactile pleasures are dead. With the rise of the iPod and legal digital downloading, songs are free once more of the album format and even of the individual artist, the way they were back in the Tin Pan Alley era. Your neighbor's teenage kid takes in music on an iPod Shuffle that functions as both a mobile jukebox and eternal soundtrack for the movie that is his life. My daughters consider liner notes, even photos of the band, distinct curiosities. An immediate, disposable, and startlingly pure relationship between listener and song has achieved primacy, one that trumps even the glory days of the 45 single and ''American Top 40."

Movies will evolve differently, to be sure, if only because we have to sit still to watch them. Also, one person can still make a song, whereas many people are traditionally needed to make a film. That is, unless you're Jonathan Caouette, the creator of last year's critically acclaimed ''Tarnation," who created a ''mix film" of his fractious life using home movies and an Apple computer. Again, technology proceeds in the direction of ease and efficiency, and the digital filmmaking explosion means we'll be seeing a lot more Jonathan Caouettes. Whether you think that's a good thing or not is very much beside the point.

How will ease and efficiency affect watching movies? There's one school of thought that foresees the IMAX-ization of every small-town multiplex. Others believe nothing short of lowering ticket prices and scrapping the commercials will bring audiences back. Still others are sure that the movement from mass audiences to small, fragmented group or even solo viewing is unstoppable.

George Lucas wants to see digital projectors in every movie theater in America, but unless he intends to personally bankroll the conversion, it's not going to happen soon. Which may be a shame; the visual warmth that is arguably lost when you go from analog projection to digital is offset by the potential expansion in content choice. Cheap, high-quality 3-D and live concert feeds are suddenly within an exhibitor's reach, and so is the as-yet-unexplored notion of theatrical movies on demand.

Think about it: Since you can theoretically download any film to a digital projector's server, why not program your own night at the movies, invite your friends, and split the proceeds with the theater owner? Pull your favorite classic out of mothballs, screen that underrated horror film, arrange a weeklong festival the way Amazon puts up user guides.

Or go Jonathan Caouette one better: Take that private epic you shot on digital video and edited on your iMac, and zap it straight to theaters. If the shadow plays of Hollywood aren't filling the seats, maybe our own flickering dreams will do the trick. Something had better, and soon, before a tipping point is reached, theatrical exhibition is suddenly no longer economically viable, and movie houses start blinking out. Entertainment formats and mass mediums can and do go extinct; the big screen could yet go the way of vaudeville, the art form it killed off.

But what could possibly replace it? How would movies make that necessary mass-market splash before fragmenting onto DVD, cable, and on-demand? More critically, what would we do as a society without the shared narrative experience? Since before we started taking notes and calling it history, human beings have felt a yearning to sit in a crowd of ecstatic strangers and be awed by the bigness of stories. DVDs and a $4 bag of M&Ms aren't going to make that need disappear, but they may unfortunately spell the end of the best way to indulge it we've yet invented.

Ty Burr can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


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Re: Are the movies dying? 26 Jun 2005 20:12 #11568

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That sure is a thought-provoking article, isn't it? On one hand, I'm scared of the future bringing down the business I have discovered and fallen in love with. On the other hand, I'm optimistic about what the future holds. Surely, there will be room for SOME sort of entertainment service in this area. The questions are what it will be and how much $ will I have to shell out to retool my projection room to make it happen. I'm also worrying about the transition period. If the traditional model is failing and some new model is developing then how can I influence it in some way? Or can I? Will it be profitable enough to survive during the changes?

[This message has been edited by leeler (edited June 27, 2005).]
"What a crazy business"
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Re: Are the movies dying? 28 Jun 2005 10:17 #11569

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meanwhile...... at the Colonial we're up and doing fine...........

I'm wondering: will people suddenly stop seeing live concerts, I guess they could just listen at home. Will they stop going to water parks when you could have a home pool.

And if movies will be going direct: how will people know about the films or the stars?



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Re: Are the movies dying? 28 Jun 2005 15:38 #11570

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We're doing great in Elkader, too. We had three sell-outs this weekend and sold half my house last night (on a Monday!). All of this on a movie over a month old. Will I continue to be able to do this or will the shrinking window catch up to me? I just see some profound changes coming in our industry and want to be as prepared as possible.
"What a crazy business"
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Re: Are the movies dying? 29 Jun 2005 05:39 #11571

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Theatres are destinations. Theatres are an experience.

The question isn't about shrinking windows, but how do I make the experience at my theatre one that customers want to return to? Unless you're Peter Jackson, or his ilk, then your home theatre just isn't giving you the same movie.

It sounds like the two of you are doing something right and wanting to continue to improve on that has to be commended.

I know that one of the key gripes here in NZ is the ever increasing cost of going to the movies. As the cost goes up attendance goes down, I don't buy the argument that they're not linked. That's where the discussions start.

I'm not an industry stalwart, I've been a fan all my life, but it's only now that I've actually stopped to look at the business. I believe that there are opportunities.

With the industry in a state of flux I also believe that now is the time to influence it for the future. As I've said in the past if the Indies unite then they'd be a significant network, one that would have a loud voice in the crowd.

Time to review the rules of engagement.

I'm out, Zedpha...
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Re: Are the movies dying? 29 Jun 2005 09:17 #11572

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Gets ya thinkin' don't it? I wonder if this article was directed mainly towards the multi-plexes. The prices are so high at some of these theatres that there is little wonder why people are staying away. Although the small independent owners may be feeling the pinch I doubt if it is as bad as the big guys.

There are those of us, and there are quite a few, who enjoy movies on the big screen. The movie theatre experience is something we look forward to. Then there are fewer of us who know what it takes to run a theatre and realize that some prices have to up. But we still go any way.

I think in the long run that the independents will be the theatres that keep the magic alive. They view their customers as people, not numbers, and their prices and courteous customer relations show it.
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Re: Are the movies dying? 29 Jun 2005 13:10 #11573

Ever think that Hollywood is trying to kill us? We won't help them avoid that costly fee for print production, and we keep complaining about BO %.

Ultimately, the industry might revert to the original Cineplex way of doing things: The Miniplex. Small auditoriums (70-180 seats), 20 screens per complex and smaller screens. Maybe its the only way we'll see something positive in our industry for a long time. Maybe it'll allow more room for art films (you know, the only good films around right now). And maybe, just maybe, we could start taking control of our business in our own hands. Enough of being under the dictatorship of the studios.

I don't know... Its my opinion, and like mentioned above, I am optimistic for the finale, while standing here saying "its the end".
Since 1987
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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 06:35 #11574

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Being new to the ball game I get to question the rules...why, for example, do we retain a fluctuating revenue sharing scheme?

Would the world end if the "nut" was abandoned and the distributor received a fixed percentage of the ticket price instead? What if it were70/30 in favour of the exhibitor for example?

Why stop there? What other aspects of cinema "conventional wisdom" can we question?

Even if there wasn't a significant amount of soul searching going on at present, it would only be prudent to continually seek to refine the business model.

I'm out, Zedpha
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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 09:53 #11575

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I'm afraid that Zedpha struck out in his last comment. There is no way to "revise the game" unless the originators of the 'game,' the studios/distributors, agree to revise the game. And why should they? They already get what amounts to 80% of the grosses of a movie, and that is a better overall return than in most industries. After all, it is not without purpose (and greed) that the conglomerates bought them up: movies are very profitable, regardless of the poor performance of the klinkers along the way, and in contradiction to all the public hand-wringing that the film makers do for public sympathy.

Yes, the movie makers do need a showhouse or two in major cities to help with initial audience anticipation, but there are THOUSANDS of screens in the nation that they therefore DON'T need. Why should they divy up the money pie with them?? The obvious economic answer is: they shouldn't. The old business model is truly dead ever since the government split the movie makers from their cinemas, and only those who failed Economics 101 will continue to keep their heads in the sand and say 'but things just HAVE to go on as always.' No they don't. New technology and a new society make that clear. The conglomerates are even more rapacious than the studios ever were, and they will do absolutely anything (legal or illegal) to get more money!

Some say that the indie cinemas should band together and FORCE the studios to render them better terms; HUH??? Remember that it is the studios that control the product, not the independent cinemas. With DVD sales now more profitable than ticket sales, why- o-why, should the film makers embrace the cinemas that they cannot own? Do you propose that the 'association of independent cinemas' take on producing movies for their cinemas? If so, you don't understand the monumental costs involved, even with today's low budget miracles. Do such 'miracles' happen often enough to warrant such an 'indies' studio'? Could the profits from such low budget films ever be enough to guarantee enough PROFITABLE screen time to justify cutting oneself off from the studios (they would surely deny their films to anyone who joined such an 'indies' production company')?

Perhaps trying to make your cinema a true theatre, and therefore a ture "occasion" to come to, then you may be able to buck the certain trend for a few more years, especially if you can also meantime, transform it into a live venue or something other than a studio's filmhouse. Only a few will succeed at this, of course, since even the live action houses are slowly disappearing as technology whittles away at the last of the out-of-home entertainments. Yes, sports will continue to attract the major out-of-home entertainment dollars and fewer and fewer movie houses will be needed, so practical exhibitors will look to developing other occupations while they are still getting some return form their antiquated business model: the cinema.

I bemoan this situation as do all of you, but I am realistic enough to realize that it is money that rules this country more than anything else, and only a fool will bet the future of his children on anything that proposes to buck the trend that money takes, for it is today's real 'god.'
Jim R. (new E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ) member: www.HistoricTheatres.org
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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 11:09 #11576

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Sadly, JIM is telling it like it REALLY is... The studios sold us out 30 years ago when HBO started... The fact that VHS, DVD, satellite, Home Theater, HDTV, etc. have come into being since just accelerates the end a little sooner... All of the studios are owned by conglomerates who have both feet firmly planted in some form of electronic entertainment, and they don't give a tinker's damn what happens to theater exhibition... The more of the pie they can keep, the better for them... When broadcast TV started they had theater chains and needed us indies to survive, but those days are long gone & they've joined the enemy... The only thing we had back then was better and EXCLUSIVE product, and that's gone now, as well... The old studio heads were movie men then, but they're money men today, and cutting us out makes more money... Just simple economics!...
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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 14:04 #11577

Maybe the chains are amalgamating now so that they fall together? Subconciously, that is. If the newly christianed "AMC ENTERTAINMENT" were to go bust, then two chains would be gone.

Either way, I don't think we'll disapear completely. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

As someone else mentioned, maybe its time for a company to become the "WAL-MART" of theatres. Everything would be cheap, to get people through the door.
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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 16:03 #11578

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MAN YOU GUYS ARE A LITTLE ON THE DEPRESSING SIDE!

Let me fix that caps thing.

Cheap: How cheap do you want it? What would be cheap enough? If you know someone who would build a theatre for less that would be nice. I'm sorry but I think the real world charges for a movie ticket are not ridiculous.

It costs me 55.00 to have my two lawns mowed. Cleaning people charge 20-25.00 per hour to clean the house. We charge 7.00 adults and 4.50 kids. For one hour of house cleaning a family of four (almost) can go a movie here. And if you can afford a 2.50 popcorn then don't buy it.

I think you folks who seem to be gleefully predicting your own death are all wet. yes; it's down. But we're within 10% head count of any last year in the lat 10 years.

One word: cyclical.



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Re: Are the movies dying? 30 Jun 2005 16:52 #11579

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Reading some of these posts it leaves the impression that the studios don't even need the exhibitors. But even with the shortening of the window from the theatrical run to DVD, the theatrical run provides something that "straight-to-DVD" can never accomplish...publicity and legitimacy.

The reality is that it is close to impossible for most studios to make money on the theatrical run...it's a loss leader at best. But they are willing to make the investment because they need the legitimacy and publicity that is generated to sell their precious DVD's.

Our small company is releasing it's first "low-budget" feature this September. The P&A costs are huge compared with the actual production budget. But we know that if we have even a modest success in theaters, it will only help the DVD release.

As long as our pop-culture is obsessed with the top 10 box office grosses or per-screen-averages, the exbitor is in a strong position. The studio's need you...almost as much as you need them.

Chris
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Re: Are the movies dying? 01 Jul 2005 06:51 #11580

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I've seen the figures and you're right, the studios are scoring as much for some movies on the DVD release as they are on the theatrical release. So what? Just means that in those cases they'd only make half as much if the film wasn't shown in theatres.

How does a united indie organisation make studios listen to them? They don't show their product.

Radical idea, not arguing that. Regardless of what the studios say they need the indies as much as they need the chains, particularly in the under represented areas. It's just easier dealing with the chains 'cause you've got one negotiating team for a national network. Indies make it easy 'cause they're "dependent" on the studios...

...I'm not trying to be annoying, it comes naturally, I simply feel that there's a better way. A way where some balance is restored to the equation. Where the customer gets a good deal, where indies aren't squeezed 'til it hurts and where the studios achieve sustainability.

Oh and where those of us outside the 15-25 demographic don't have to wait around for the next film fest for a good flick.

Seriously though there isn't a dire need to be radical, but forming a united front does shift the power and a threatened corporate bottom line (particularly in the present climate) is a great way to kick start a dialogue.

If we don't make the future, then the future makes us.

I'm out, Zedpha
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Re: Are the movies dying? 01 Jul 2005 12:49 #11581

  • Larry Thomas
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I hear the same thing from my accounts every April and September.

"Oh, my God!!! We're doomed."

Bull#@*t!!

Even more prescient than the word "plastics," as Mike said, our word is "cyclical."

Hang in there, Doomsters.

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