Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Selling Theater Tickets in a Post-Netflix Era

The entertainment press is, like the rest of the press, not famous for encouraging a long-term perspective. Slight ups and downs in the mark get trumpeted as indications of endless boom times to come, or the End of Everything, when in the United States, at least, the numbers have remained fairly constant: 4-5 tickets sold per capita, per year, for the past several decades.

Still, that does not rule out the possibility of deeper and more worrying changes for the business, like the apparently decreasing tendency of the younger age cohorts to go to the theater. To go by the statistics routinely offered up on BoxOfficeGuru, for the young moviegoing (rather than mere movie-watching) is less and less a casual activity during a weekend outing, and more and more a deliberate decision--which seems understandable given that they are as a rule more cash-strapped, less mobile and more accustomed to alternatives for accessing content than older cohorts, even as all demographic categories seem to be affected by these trends.1

The result is that while it has always been the case that most movies lose money, leaving the industry dependent on a comparatively small number of big moneymakers, a "regular" movie has even less chance than before. A film simply has to offer something on the big screen that will make buying a ticket rather than waiting and seeing it on the small screen worthwhile. The most obvious way is sheer visual impact--hence, the accent on blockbuster-style spectacle, supplemented with the punch of IMAX and 3-D.

The other is making a film's release feel like an event, something the viewer wants to experience not in two months, but right NOW along with "everyone" else. Of course, there is hype, but it only goes so far when everyone does it, and those charged with generating the hype need something to work with--the very reason for the pressure on would-be filmmakers to produce "high-concept" work. Basing a film on a property which already has a large and interested following is the most obvious strategy--hence the endless sequels, spin-offs and remakes, as well as the tendency for new work to come from adaptations of already popular properties rather than original scripts. (The phenomenon is not limited to tentpoles: Twilight was not an action-packed CGI-fest, but its release was certainly received as an event by fans of the book.2)

Still, there are limits to the "event" strategy. If every movie is an event, then no movie is an event, especially if all the movies out there look alike anyway--a gripe that has become fairly routine, though it may be increasingly plausible. And particular franchises can be worked to diminishing returns in this as in other ways. The Spiderman reboot failed to stir up real excitement back in 2012, and the sequel suffered accordingly this summer, setting the tone for a season full of movies that large parts of the audience felt they could afford to miss.

Nonetheless, for all the disappointments of the past few months, Hollywood, buoyed by all the surcharges and foreign receipts, looks a long way from the kind of crisis that would require it to seriously alter its way of doing business.

1. Their decreased propensity to drive has often been noted; and it should be remembered that this is not a reflection of improved public transport, the reverse likely being the case given post-2008 cuts to public services.
2. It seems, too, that movie running times reflect similar pressures. The 90 minute film seems largely a thing of the past, just about everything seeming to be a two-and-a-half hour epic, intended to make the viewer feel they got something they wouldn't just watching a TV show at home. And of course, when the movie's main offering is spectacle, the longer running time lets it serve up more of this.

My Posts on the Film Industry
8/24/13

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