Are the movies dying?
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 and Mrs Smith, and Batman Begins, summer's box office is down 10 percent from last year, 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 percent 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 lim-ping 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 this year 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 NT$250 plus for sticky floors when you can buy the DVD for around the same money and watch it on your plasma TV with Dolby 5.1 surround sound? Or download it 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 Internet.
As for grown-ups, the film industry has by and large written them off.
This may be a smart business move 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 a 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."
Something similar is happening at the movies.
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