Fri, Jul 01, 2005 - Page 17 News List

The end of the movie is nigh


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.

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