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Hollywood is Dead
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Going, Going…Gone? Is Hollywood Dying?

Something was always going to kill the movies…

Barry Diller, the one-time head of Paramount and 20th Century Fox and now CEO of InterActive Corporation, generated some headlines in media news early in July when he declared “The movie business is over,” in an interview with NPR.  A few weeks later he modified this a bit in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Kim Masters:

“Because of streaming, because of the pandemic, because of the enormous production of long-form content…the word movies – what we think of as a movie – is evolving and no longer means what it did just a couple of years ago, pre-pandemic.”  As a result, Diller expects an eventual collapse of theater exhibitions, with maybe only ten percent of existing theaters surviving globally.

But even before the pandemic, some were already doom-calling the movie business.  Nick Bilton, in a 2017 Vanity Fair piece – “Why Hollywood As We Know It Is Already Over” – was predicting that Hollywood, because of digital alternatives, “…seems remarkably poised for a similar disruption…” to what had already happened to music in the 1990s and to print publishing in the early 2000s.

But we’ve heard this before:  in the 1950s, TV was going to kill the movies; in the 1970s, pay-TV was going to kill the movies; in the 1980s, home video was going to kill the movies.  Something was always going to kill the movies, and the industry would often congratulate itself on surviving whatever the supposed threat-of-the-moment was.  Maybe that’s why, in Bilton’s piece, he found the tone in the movie business to be “…generally one of defiance…‘We’re different,’ one producer recently told me.  ‘No one can do what we do.’”

Diller’s pronouncement might seem a bit apocalyptic (and I think Bilton is a bit overoptimistic about what replaces the current movie universe), but if you look at the numbers over the long term, you see that the theatrical movie business has been in a decades-long slow death – kind of like that business about the frog in a pot of water not aware you’ve been incrementally turning up the heat until the poor critter boils to death.  All of those supposed threats I mentioned above?  No one of them could deal a death blow, but together it’s been something like the Death of a Thousand Cuts; each one did some damage.  The business, with a certain amount of self-back patting, adapted, but never completely recovered from any of them.

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When I was a kid growing up in Newark, on weekends – and especially on summer weekends – parents eager to get their kids out of their hair for a while would shove a dollar in their little hands and say, “Why don’t you go to a movie?”  And so, on weekends, a troop of us would amble on down the three blocks to the Elwood Theater.

The Elwood was a big barn of a place, built in the 1930s during the heyday of Old Hollywood.  On some weekends the management put together a double bill of not-new monster and action flicks for the young matinee crowd, and other weekends we might get the main feature.  In those days the management didn’t clean the house between showings; I remember sitting through The Great Escape (1963) twice on a Saturday and then twice again that Sunday.

You didn’t know what you were going to get, even if it was the main feature, because movies generally weren’t preceded with the massive media blitzes we see today, nor were they released nationwide.  Movies were typically released at the better theaters in major markets first, then cycled down to second-run houses (like the Elwood), and third-run and drive-in venues.  Really big, prestigious releases – something like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) – might debut in only a handful of Radio City Music Hall-type theaters around the country before it began to percolate down into neighborhood theaters.

I can remember us hearing about some cool flick opening in New York and eagerly wondering when it would finally come over to Jersey.  There was nothing we envied more than some kid whose parents took him/her across the river to catch a movie in its first run at Radio City.  The only movies that went into wide release were movies a studio expected to tank, so wide release was a way of making a few bucks before the toxic word of mouth got out.

When I was ten or eleven, we moved to a suburban town called Caldwell.  Between Caldwell and Newark were four other towns, all six butting against each other.  If you’ve never lived in a metropolitan area, you can’t imagine what this big urban clot was like.  If it weren’t for the “Welcome To” signs, you’d never know you’d left one town and entered another.  The main artery connecting them all and that ran through the downtowns of each of them was Bloomfield Avenue – The Ave.

Caldwell had the Park Theater which was maybe a fifteen-minute walk from where I lived.  The Park was another cave of a place built in 1925.  Not long after we moved to Caldwell, Cinema West opened at the other end of town, a small, boxy auditorium tacked on to the end of a strip mall., also within easy walking distance.  Sometime after Cinema West opened, the Park converted to a revival/arthouse running a combination of classics, indie films, and foreign releases; esoterica and mainstream commercial, all within range of a comfy amble.

If we didn’t mind a hike, we’d make the thirty-forty-minute trek down to the next town over – Verona – and the Verona Theater.  The Verona was a cozy little box, a family-run theater built in 1947.

Sometimes we’d hop on the 29 bus which ran down The Ave to hit one of the two theaters in Montclair, then and now a tony, upscale, thoroughly white-collar town.  Montclair had the Wellmont, built in 1922 originally as a vaudeville theater.  The town also had what, in Jersey, was the biggest of the big:  the Clairidge. 

The Clairidge was a gorgeous old-style movie house built in 1922 with a domed ceiling, and that felt a mile wide.  In the 1960s, the Clairidge became Jersey’s only Cinerama theater; it’s massive, curved screen and stereophonic sound system were sort of that era’s version of IMAX.  It was a big house with a big screen, and this is where you went to see big movies, spectacles like 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968).

After my father passed in 1970, my mother moved our family back down The Ave to Bloomfield, a very working-class town with two movie houses.  There was the Center, a cute little house that had begun as the Lincoln Theater in 1914, then became the Center in 1946.  And just one block away was the Royal whose interior was certainly one of the most architecturally impressive of all the movie houses on The Ave.  I’m going to quote from the Cinema Treasures website:

“Built in the early-1920’s as Stern’s Royal Theater, this was one of the most popular theaters along the ‘Bloomfield Avenue Route’ out of Newark. One of the most elaborate ceilings in the Rococco style, the building also boasted a block-long lobby with a white granite floor, to boot. 1,700 seats on one floor (no balcony) and one of the largest screens in the area coupled by precision point projection made for a great movie going experience.”

I’m belaboring this trip down a movie-goers Memory Lane to make a point.  Except for the Clairidge which some years ago was gutted and refurbished as a six-auditorium arthouse, as movie venues the rest are all gone.  The Park burned down in 1974 (arson was suggested by some), the Cinema West was knocked down to make way for more stores, the Verona was turned into an office building, the Wellmont into a concert venue, the Center has been derelict for twenty years or better, and the Royal was knocked down and replaced by a parking lot.

In fact, there is hardly a movie theater I used to go to – even those we could drive to once we all started getting our licenses – that still stands.  Drive-ins were sold to building developers, even the more modern two-screen houses that had begun springing up on Jersey’s store-lined major highways in the 1960s were replaced with more stores.

I’m not talking maudlin nostalgia here.  I’m talking about that frog in the pot of water going, “Hey, is it me or is it getting kind of warm in here?”  And it wasn’t the first time Froggy’d asked that question.

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When the motion picture industry began to consolidate in the 1920s, the core of the business became the majors whose names we all still know:  Warner Brothers, MGM, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Columbia, Universal, United Artists.  There were a number of smaller outfits (i.e. Republic, Monogram, et al), but these were the biggies accounting for more than half of the entire industry’s output.

Nearly all of them were affiliated with or owned by an exhibition chain.  Today we’d call them vertically integrated:  movie companies made movies that went to their affiliated movie houses; affiliated movie houses provided a guaranteed exhibition platform for their affiliated movie companies.

The two sides of the business needed each other.  Remember, this is years before TV; movies were the form of visual entertainment, and that being the case, movie companies were pumping out an endless supply of products so that their theater chains could have something new on their screens every one or two weeks.  How popular was movie-going?  From 1922 (earliest attendance numbers available) to 1930, attendance doubled from 40 million to 80 million per week!  This in a country with a population of just over 123 million. Even during the depths of the Great Depression, attendance didn’t drop below 50 million weekly.

This doesn’t mean that’s how many people were buying tickets each week because the nature of the business at that time gave people the opportunity to go to the movies more than once in a week and see something different each time.  You could, say walk over to a neighborhood house running Warner Bros. flicks one day, then trot over to another house running Paramount titles, and so on.  Why not?  Movie-going was cheap; the ticket for a double bill which consisted of an A and B feature, a short, and a newsreel went for about $4.00 in today’s money (the average ticket price today is over $9.00 – if you live in a major metropolitan area like the New York metro area, you could be looking at a range of $10.00 — $15.00 or better…for one movie).

The all-time high for movie attendance was during the WW II years, unsurprisingly.  In places where there were war industries, communities were running three-shift days as factories turned out war materiel and munitions nonstop.  In 1943 and 1944, in a country of just 131 million with several million of those Americans overseas fighting the war, weekly – and I emphasize weekly – movie attendance hit 84 million for each year.

How does this compare to today?  Dividing total Hollywood domestic take by average ticket prices, between 2001 and pre-pandemic 2019, attendance never went above 15 million…for the year!  Yeah, you read that right!  For decades, in fact, annual movie ticket sales have never even come close to weekly ticket sales during the glory days of Old Hollywood.

But glory days don’t last forever.  Starting in 1945, attendance began to decline, dropping steadily and not hitting bottom for another twenty-eight years.

Somebody had started turning up the heat under that poor frog’s pot.

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Smell-O-Vision

Post-WW II was the movie industry’s first near-death scare, and it came as a result of a one-two punch.

One hit was, of course, television.  Like with all new technologies, the first TVs were expensive; the modern-day equivalent of shelling out almost $1700!  In 1948, only 350,000 homes had a TV set.  But prices came down and only two years later, that number had ballooned to 4 million.  Another four years, and more than half of American homes had a set, and by 1962 ownership was at 90% of homes.  Legendary producer Sam Goldwyn surveyed the box office wreckage wrought by TV and accurately diagnosed the problem; that nobody had to go to the movies “…when they can stay home and see something which is at least no worse.”

The studios were getting hit on another flank as well, and just as hard and punched right in the pocketbook.  That whole vertical integration thing had been the subject of a ten-year antitrust fight by the Justice Department since 1938.  In 1948, the studios raised the white flag and agreed to get rid of their theater chains.  Movie houses now had no guaranteed flow of product, and movie studios now had no guaranteed exhibition platforms; their movies would have to compete for screens.

And here is where you see how the business side of the movie industry impacts the creative side. 

To staunch the bleeding and to try to motivate people to get off their living room couch and get themselves to a movie house, one common tactic was to technically dazzle moviegoers:  color, stereo sound, screens got bigger, wider, they played with 3-D and such desperate gimmicks as “Smell-O-Vision” (I’m not kidding).  For those bigger screens, the studios made bigger movies, and the 1950s saw a steady parade of lavish epics like The Ten Commandments (1956), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Ben-Hur (1959)et al.

But the pushback against TV wasn’t all gimmicks and spectacle.  Moviemakers – particularly the growing number of independent companies filling the void left by the now-declining major studios – started tackling more daring, more provocative material:  racism, nuclear war, the corporatization of America, anti-Semitism.

Come the 1960s-1970s, the desperation to get a still-ebbing audience back in movie house seats produced what is often considered one of the most creative periods in U.S. commercial filmmaking.  Movies got sexier, they got more violent, and they got more daring:  The Last Tango in Paris (1972), Deliverance (1972), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), The Godfather Part I & II (1972/1974), The Exorcist (1973), The French Connection (1971), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Easy Rider (1969), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Network (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Rocky (1977), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Point Blank (1967), The Wild Bunch (1969), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Alien (1979), Planet of the Apes (1968), 2001:  A Space Odyssey, Dirty Harry (1972), MASH (1970), Mean Streets (1973), Chinatown (1974) And a whole helluva lot more.

Movie attendance finally bottomed out in 1973 at 17 million weekly and then began a slow incremental increase.  Weekly attendance would never reach pre-TV levels, not even come close, and it would be a gross overstatement to call the turnaround a comeback.  Hollywood hadn’t so much dodged a bullet as found a way to limp along, maybe creatively more than it had ever been, but as a business, decidedly less.

The next two decades saw Hollywood faced with two more near-death panic attacks.

Home Box Office launched in November of 1972, opening the modern cable TV era and the beginning of pay-TV.  In 1975, when the service began broadcasting nationally by satellite showing that a programmer didn’t need the massive terrestrial hardware the broadcast networks used to become a coast-to-coast programmer, the gold rush was on.  Pay-TV and basic cable channels quickly multiplied providing the home audience with an unprecedented flow of entertainment.  If Sam Goldwyn had been right about TV in the 1950s, he would’ve been even righter than right in the late 1970s.  HBO touted itself as a “movie theater in your home.”  Well, if it was in your home, you certainly didn’t have to drag your ass out into the cold to go to an actual theater, get a babysitter, futz around trying to find parking (because you were going to have to drive; by that time, the neighborhood movie theater was going the way of the dodo bird).

Ironically, pay-TV and Hollywood were dependent on each other.  Pay-TV may have been pulling audience away from theaters, but its selling point was new Hollywood movies.  And Hollywood may have been ticked off that people would rather stay home parked in front of their HBO or Showtime than go to the movies, but the ancillary income from those channels was swelling studio coffers.

The situation was similar in the 1980s with the advent of the VCR and home video (and then later with DVDs).  VCRs gave people a reason to not only stay home but to drop their pay-TV channels and rent the movies they wanted rather than pay a monthly fee to watch one good movie and a dozen junkers like The BeastMaster (1982) fourteen times in a month.  Still, with the license fees paid by pay-TV services, revenue from videocassette sales, and sales to commercial and cable TV channels as well as the growing value of overseas markets, a typical Hollywood movie was earning more in ancillary income than at the domestic box office.

This was not necessarily a good thing.  The movies were changing; reviewers noticed and didn’t think the change was for the better.  There was a suspicion that the cushion of ancillary income had insulated studios from their screw-ups.  They could make a dog – I mean a real dog – and it didn’t matter because all that after-market income insured that all but the most expensive flops could at least break even and maybe even make money.

More to the point, all this ancillary money didn’t do diddley-squat for exhibitors.  The studios didn’t care if they made their money at the box office or TV sales or video sales as long as they were making money.  But every ass that stayed on the sofa to watch HBO or rent a movie was one less ass in a theater seat.

Enter the multiplex.

 Actually, there had been multiplex theaters going back to the early 1900s although they were never more than twins.  But in the 1960s, the multiplex as we think of it – a multiple screen establishment attached to or in the vicinity of a shopping mall or other retail center – started blossoming.  From the 1960s into the 1980s, shopping malls began springing up like weeds around the country (4500 in 1960; 16,400 by 1975; 30,000 by 1987) and damned if you couldn’t find a multiplex as part of or somewhere close to one.

The plexes grew from twins to four-plexes to six-plexes and so on, up to the “megaplexes” of today.  Stanley Durwood may not have invented the multiple screen movie house (though he claimed to), but he was certainly the guy to accelerate its development.  Starting out with a single twin-screen house in 1963 attached to a Kansas City shopping center, he expanded the number of screens and number of houses into what became AMC Theaters:  378 theaters with 5000 screens (I did the math for you; that averages out to about 13 screens per house).

The plex gave the movie house a survivability a single-screen house didn’t have.  Single-screen houses lived and died by what was on that one screen each week.  Run a hit, you made money; run a dog, you lost money.  But with a plex running a variety of titles on its screens, winners could offset losers, and with a hit, the plex owner could put it on multiple screens and multiply the box office.

As projection technology advanced, the multiplex also became more cost-efficient.  Projection systems became automated eliminating the need for even one projectionist, with the whole projection process for the complex run by computer. 

The downside of all this – and this is why I spent all that time remembering the theaters of my youth – is that in the same way shopping malls began to kill local downtown shopping areas, the plex began to kill neighborhood movie houses.  And while the plex provided a survivability strategy to exhibitors, it didn’t amount to a fart in a gale wind as far as attendance was concerned.

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Hollywood profits were on the rebound, thanks to all this non-theatrical and overseas money the industry was reaping, but none of that did anything for attendance.  By the mid-1980s, weekly attendance had managed to crawl to 22.4 million.  That meant that – assuming, for the sake of argument, this was all single-ticket buyers – approximately 9% of the population was going to the movies each week.  In 2014, with approximately 12.3 million tickets sold for the year, as a percentage of population annual movie attendance had fallen to less than 4%.  Compare that to the 1940s when ticket buys amounting to two-thirds of the country were selling each week.

Paradoxically, what were, in the 1970s, two of the industry’s all-time biggest box office hits lured the industry down a path that only made the business more fragile.

Summer of 1975 was the summer of Jaws.  It broke a lot of rules.  Summer was usually a time the studios dumped a lot of junk onto screens assuming that only schoolkids were going to the movies during that time.  Jaws didn’t pioneer the wide release for successful films, but it did take it to an unprecedented level, and supported it with an also unprecedented amount of TV advertising.  Jaws had the summer to itself and made more money faster than any movie in Hollywood history up to that time.

Until it was eclipsed just two years later by Star Wars.  Then George Lucas broke another rule with the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), by investing more money in the follow-up rather than following the usual Hollywood playbook of quickly turning out a cheap sequel, thus demonstrating the value of the money-minting machine we now call a franchise.  Lucas had wisely held on to the merchandising rights for the brand and would ultimately rake in more money from toys and games than box office and that’s why, within just a few years, mainstream commercial filmmaking would become dominated by franchise sequels, remakes, multiverses, crossovers, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.

Want to see how much the movie business has changed?  Here’s the top 20 domestic earners from 1970 (I picked 1970 because it falls more or less in the middle of that 60s-70s creative surge:

Love Story

Airport

MASH

Patton

The Aristocats

Little Big Man

Ryan’s Daughter

Tora!  Tora!  Tora!

Catch-22

The Owl and the Pussycat

Joe

The Boatniks

Five Easy Pieces

Ann and Eve

Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

Chisum

Kelly’s Heroes

Two Mules for Sister Sarah

Two forgettable Disneys, (The Aristocats; The Boatniks), two schlocky sequels (Beneath the Planet of the Apes; Beyond the Valley of the Dolls), a John Wayne (Chisum), two Clint Eastwood actioners Kelly’s Heroes; Two Mules for Sister Sarah), one Yugoslavian import (Ann and Eve), a gooey romance (Love Story), an old-fashioned all-star melodrama (Airport), but the rest?  There’s some mighty meaty grown-up movie stuff there!

Let’s have a look at the top 20 from 2019, the last year before the pandemic:

Avengers:  Endgame

The Lion King

Toy Story 4

Frozen II

Captain Marvel

Star Wars:  Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Spider-Man:  Far from Home

Aladdin

Joker

It Chapter Two

Jumanji:  The Next Level

Us

Fast & Furious Presents:  Hobbs & Shaw

John Wick:  Chapter 3 – Parabellum

How to Train Your Dragon:  The Hidden World

The Secret Life of Pets 2

Pokemon Detective Pikachu

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

Shazam!

Aquaman

There are only two movies on that list that are not a sequel, remake, or franchise spin-off and they’re also the only two movies that come close to qualifying as a truly adult, drama-driven flick:  Us and Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (ok, we’ll split the difference on Joker which seems to have a foot in two worlds).

Look, there’s no denying this is a strategy that brings in bucks, tickles the Comic-Con crowd, and gets the fanboys (and fangirls) chattering away online, but the numbers are there:  it’s not getting more people into movie houses.  Constantly inflating ticket prices have kept the annual box office respectable, but it’s balanced on a shockingly small audience demographic.  One or two Black Panther (2018)-sized monster hits can boost the industry’s bottom line in a way that camouflages the fact that dozens and dozens of other flicks are going down the tubes.  Some might even argue that the narrow focus of the majors on the superhero/CGI-effects-addicted/hyper-action-entranced audience is keeping more people away from movie houses than it brings in.

And they haven’t exactly been a gift to exhibitors.

Back in The Day, box office was split between the distributor and the exhibitor more or less 50-50.  Today, for some of these big-budget monsters, the split is a sliding scale with the distributor getting most (sometimes all) of the first 1-2 weeks’ take before slowly dropping allowing the theater to take increasing percentages of the week-by-week fading gate.  Why?

Cost.  These humongously expensive FX-extravaganzas cost so much, the studios want to get back as much of their money as possible and know they only have a short window in which to do that.  Why?


Because the days when a Jaws could have the summer to itself are long gone.  During the exhibition season’s peak times – summer and the end-of-year holiday season – one or two of these leviathans lumber on to screens damned near every week.  Most major releases get most of what they’re going to get at the gate in just the first two weeks or so.  After that, there’s a sharp drop-off to nickels and dimes.

Why do exhibitors put up with it?  A theater can’t not screen some of the most anticipated releases of the season, otherwise people will just go to theaters that do.  And this is why your popcorn and soda costs so damned much.

These monumentally lopsided splits of the gate mean that the only place a movie house makes much money – sometimes any money — is at the snack bar.  If you want to get real cynical about this, you can make a case that movie houses aren’t in the entertainment business but in the snack food business, with the movie acting as only a lure to get people into the diner, um, I mean, the theater.

So, between rising ticket prices, rising snack bar prices, the inconvenience of having to schlepp out to a mall or busy stretch of shopper’s paradise highway, is it any wonder attendance is down?

But another turn of the knob cranking up the heat might be in the changing nature of the audience itself.

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While I was at HBO in the 1980s, the company did some research into a growing viewing phenomenon we then called “cruising.”  Cable viewers, and particularly young viewers, would sit in front of the TV, cable box in hand, and bounce through the channels endlessly.  Keep in mind, this was back in the days before a system might have hundreds of channels; we’re talking about young viewers bopping back and forth through the same 1-2 dozen channels.  And they weren’t waiting for the half-hour mark when programming on any channel typically changed; they were constantly in motion.  The goal of our research was to find out what these viewers were looking for hoping we could exploit that knowledge in our programming and scheduling strategies.  The punchline here?

They weren’t looking for anything!

What we had discovered was an entirely new way for a new generation of viewer to watch TV.  They would cruise through channels, stop when something visually hooked them, watch until they grew bored, then cruise on until something else momentarily caught their interest.  They were self-composing a viewing experience of non-linear, non-narrative, randomly visually stimulating material.

It’s probably no coincidence that 1981 saw the launch of MTV (it’s hard to remember considering how the channel has morphed, but the M stood for Music and MTV in those days was airing music videos 24/7).  And what were music videos?  Non-linear, often non-narrative pieces of exciting visuals cut to a rock beat.

Because of the explosive popularity of MTV, music videos offered a hyped-up visual-driven style soon aped by moviemakers.  I still remember reviewers of Top Gun (1986 – directed by Tony Scott who’d graduated from making visually stunning TV commercials) complaining that the eye-candied, dramatically-anemic flick felt more like a two-hour music video than a movie.

After the 1980s gave us cable cruising and MTV, the 1990s gave us the videogame explosion, the 2000s gave us the Internet and smart phones and a generation now completely immersed in visual and abbreviated text diversions.  As early as 2009, a Kaiser Foundation study of 2000 young people aged 8-18 found these kids spending practically every waking minute on some kind of electronic device:  phones, videogames, computers, etc.  They also found that their school grades typically averaged C or lower.

Do a little research and you’ll find a rough correlation between the rise among the young demographic in device usage and a decay in reading and writing scores.  A 2015 study by Renaissance Learning showed the average college freshman of the day was only reading at a 7th grade level, and a 2016 report by the same organization claimed young people were reading less than 15 minutes a day.

Ok, what does this have to do with movies and exhibition?

We all know tastes and sensibilities change over time.  Today, Rhett Butler would have to tell Scarlet O’Hara to go fuck herself to get the same rise out of an audience he got in 1939 with, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!”  But how we watch and process visual input evolves as well, and that does have an impact not only on movie storytelling, but on exhibition.

Up through WW II, movies were generally a downscale form of entertainment, a diversion for the working classes.  They were not a particularly well-educated cohort (you’d be surprised at how many people didn’t graduate high school prior to WW II) which explains the overall character, both in form and content, of what was on screens during that time.

We may think of Golden Age Hollywood pumping out a parade of Gone with the Winds and Casablancas…but they didn’t.  Most product of the time was dramatically lightweight, morally simplistic, rarely real-world reflective, the pace energetically brisk.  Movies were short:  A features rarely went longer than 90 minutes, more cheaply made B features might run as short as 60 minutes.

Postwar, there was a significant shift in the movie-going demographic and with it, a change in movie-goers’ sensibilities.  The young audience became a key driver of the box office (igniting the explosive popularity of sci fi).  They were better educated, better off financially, with an appetite for more realistic and/or topical stories, and for an alternative to TV.

The successful escalation in the turn-out of high-profile epics, which extended well into the 1960s with films like Spartacus (1960), The Longest Day (1962), How the West Was One (1962), Lawrence of Arabia, The Sand Pebbles (1967), The Great Escape among others, brought out an audience that didn’t need the breezy pace of pre-war films, but had a tolerance – even a desire – for these often three-hour (or better) cinematic extravaganzas which tried to convey the same dramatic weight and gravitas of the literary source material and/or historic events on which they were often based.

Come the 1960s/70s, another generation of young viewer with yet another change in viewing sensibility began reshaping movies.  Peter Biskind, in his acclaimed account of those years – Easy Riders, Raging Bulls:  How the Sex, Drugs and Rock ’N’ Roll Generation Saved Hollywood – describes the teen and college cohort of the time as the first (and possibly last) cinema literate generation, one in which studying, discussing, debating movies, classic and contemporary, had become a part of popular culture; had become cool.  They not only provided an audience for movies grappling with the issues of their time and presented the world they knew in harshly realistic terms, but were willing to take the ride with an equally new generation of filmmakers exploring storytelling techniques copied from European cinema:  flash cuts, flash forwards, non-linear plots, surreal distortion, genre revisionism, movies ranging from jittery cinema verité authenticity (Mean Streets) to more deliberately paced, formally-framed languor (The Godfather).

Then comes the 1980s+ and a developing, alt-media-shaped sensibility demanding hyperkinetic, action/effects-driven offerings to get that same key young demographic in seats.  That same sensibility didn’t need going to a movie theater to be satisfied.

A 2005 study by global and consumer research and consulting firm Online Text eXchange (OTX) of males 13-24 already showed a 24% drop in movie-going from summer 2003 to summer 2005.  Mind you, this was before big screen TVs had become ubiquitous and smart phones hadn’t yet evolved into a portable personal entertainment device.    According to the OTX study, this wasn’t just a reaction to rising prices or preferring the convenience and comfort of movie-watching at home.  OTX reported a decline in the number of people interested in the “whole movie-going experience.”

Poor Froggy was sweating over 15 years ago.

Our sensibilities and tastes are, at least to a large degree, shaped by what we grow up with.  We tend, consciously or not, to measure everything thereafter against that baseline.  I grew up going to neighborhood single-screen movie theaters with little idea of what I’d be getting on the screen.  My only alternative was the six TV channels we received over the air (I was part of the New York metropolitan market, the largest in the U.S. – smaller markets had fewer channels, some only two).  The kind of mainstream movies I was exposed to in the 1960s/70s are now the kind of stuff you only find on the indie circuit, and what drives the box office today was, in my younger days, summer filler cheapies.

But today’s young movie-goer is the child of the MTV generation, even more enveloped in non-traditional media platforms than their parents were.  The big screen simply doesn’t mean to them what it meant to previous generations.  Movie-going was dying even before the pandemic, not that COVID didn’t have an impact.  It was gasoline poured on a rising fire; an accelerant.  A frog-killer.

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Traditional movie-going was always a submissive experience.  You left the familiar surroundings of your home to sit in a strange, dwarfing environment where, once the lights went down, your focus was funneled toward that large screen at the front of the auditorium.  If what was offered worked for you, you gave yourself over to the universe offered on the screen.

No matter how big your home TV screen is, it’s not the same.  You’re in the familiar surroundings of your home, can stop the movie for snacks, to take a crap, let the dog out, take a pizza delivery, watch the rest the next day.  For a generation growing up with interactive media, that reads less than any generation since WW II, the idea of sitting in some strange (and increasingly expensive) setting for a couple of hours with a single point of focus, well, it may be this simple:  they don’t like it.  In theaters, it’s not unusual to see the blue glow of their active phone screens in their laps.

Nick Bilton, reporting three years before the pandemic:

“Hollywood, in its over-reliance on franchises, has ceded the vast majority of the more stimulating content to premium networks and over-the-top services such as HBO and Showtime, and increasingly, digital-native platforms such as Netflix and Amazon…‘I don’t know why anyone would want a movie company today,’ (Barry) Diller said at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit in October.  ‘They don’t make movies; they make hats and whistles’.” 

Three years later, well, we all know what happened.  The pandemic, which closed theaters and forced people to rely on at-home entertainment, only reinforced what was already a trend.  During the first quarter of 2020 as the COVID pandemic exploded, Netflix added 15.8 million subscribers. 

Ok, so let’s say traditional movie-going is dying.  We have streaming and Netflix, and Hulu, and big screen TVs with stereo sound…who needs movie theaters?  Forget good-ol’-days nostalgia for sitting in the good ol’ neighborhood movie house with your buddies being tickled with yes-we-thought-this-was-funny-stuff junk like Beach Blanket Bingo (1965).  What are we out?

Actually, we may already be getting a taste of that, too.

If Bilton is right, that what happened in music and print will happen (maybe is already happening) to the movie industry, the revenue from digital won’t compensate for the loss of revenue from traditional pipelines.  The rule-of-thumb formula is that a movie has to earn back 2-3 times its cost to hit breakeven (maybe more depending on profit participants).  So, for example, Avengers:  Endgame cost $356 million to make (excluding marketing costs) meaning it had to make somewhere north of $700 million to breakeven.  The movie went on to do $2.8 billion globally, so it’s a moneymaker.  Can streaming primarily or solely generate $2.8 billion?  Put another way, does the financial paradigm shift so much that we see fewer of the kind of movies that still do get young people in a theater?

And what about smaller movies?  The indie art house flicks, movies like Nomadland (2021) and Green Book (2018) and Spotlight (2015); movies that get their audiences not because of major studio media blitzes, but word-of-mouth coming off the indie house circuit.  In a streaming-dominant environment, do they make any sort of fiscal sense for streaming platforms or producers?

Yes, these platforms, with their bottomless appetite for product, offer new and more opportunities for content producers, but that comes with a big “but” according to Barry Diller:  “These streaming services have been making something that they call ‘movies’…They ain’t movies.  They are some weird algorithmic process that has created things that last 100 minutes or so.”  Diller went on to say that the very definition of what a movie was “…is in such transition that it doesn’t mean anything right now.”

“The movie business as before,” Diller says, “is finished and will never come back.”

#####

Yes, I am an old fart.  I do get nostalgic for the childhood thrill of walking into a big movie house, sitting in the dark, and seeing something I’d never seen before.  I was able to have that thrill for a long time:  childhood at the Elwood, as a college kid seeing Chinatown and Network as the multiplexes(1976), as an adult working in New York and seeing big-screen revivals of oldies I’d never gotten to see on a big screen like Spartacus, or revisit after watching them for years on TV cropped and cut like The Magnificent Seven (1960).

I get that that day is already long gone.  I’m fine with the multiplex and the overpriced popcorn as long as I still get to catch a good flick now and then, whether it’s a fun Marvel confection or something more challenging like a Dunkirk (2017) or a bittersweet little indie like The Hero (2017).  But if even that experience disappears?

With what Barry Diller said in mind, then maybe the movies won’t even be the movies anymore.

Boiled frog’s legs anyone?

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press). You can find his work at the link below.

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