Monday, March 06, 2006

The Big Picture...

On the same topic (box office blues) as the last couple of posts, the L.A. Times featured an article Sunday on the fact that audiences are increasingly fragmenting. In this case, they were discussing this in terms of this year’s Oscar nominees, but the argument holds true for the upcoming swarm of would-be summer blockbusters:

”We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbuster movies, hit TV shows and top-selling CDs, but fewer events that capture the communal pop culture spirit…

In the movie business, for example, many of the most profitable films in recent years haven't been costly sequels, but low-budget comedies and horror films that could be cheaply marketed to a loyal fan base…

No one is sneezing at the profits from the "Harry Potter" series, which has grossed about $3.5 billion worldwide. But the most envied business model in Hollywood is the one at Lionsgate Films, whose two "Saw" horror movies, made for a combined cost of $6 million, have racked up $142 million in domestic box office alone.”

The problem, of course, is that the major studios are addicted to blockbusters. For instance, if Superman Returns hits, Warners will not only reap money directly from the actual movies fortunes, but from toys, comic books and graphic novels (Warners owns DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics), cartoon shows, DVDs of the old movies, etc. Nobody wants to make $20 million on a $5 million dollar movie; they want to make $500 million on a $200 million film.

The Times is correct, though: Audiences have a lot more choices now, and not just between competing films. The list is pretty obvious: TV, the Internet, video games, etc. Add in the typical and always increasing complaints about movies—they cost too much, they aren’t very good, the audiences are increasingly annoying and obnoxious, etc.—and you end up with more and more expensive movies chasing fewer and fewer audience members.

Moreover, as the home theater experience gets better and cheaper, to the extent that soon a goodly portion of home will have large widescreen HD monitors on which to watch movies in comfort and with a lack of noise from fellow viewers, we might be seeing a lot less reliance on the communal theater experience in the years ahead. However, that’s a completely different experience. Not only aren’t you sharing it with a roomful of strangers, but you also exercise control over the movie instead of the other way around. I think that will further serve to diminish the psychological hold movies had over our culture during the last hundred years. Even the fact that the movies won't literally be "bigger" than we are will have a very real effect.

This year’s Best Picture Nominees, meanwhile, lacked a single widely seen movie. No Titanics or Gladiators here; the biggest film was Brokeback Mountain, which has drawn $75 million so far. That’s a highly profitable movie, based on its budget, but not a film that crossed over demographic lines. And the rest of the nominees; Capote, Crash, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck, were seen by far fewer people than that. And while Best Picture Winner Crash might see several more millions from its winning the golden statuette, you can't expect it to suddenly be making a fortune.

In a way, however, these films are what many want to see: Mid-range films that are low-budgeted enough that they can make money without drawing zillions of teens, and thus actually geared towards adults (albeit adults of mostly a single political stripe). I think that's something many of us can get behind.

However, the structure of theaters and film production isn’t really geared towards those sorts of movies anymore. Those of us in urban areas have access to arthouse venues to see such fare, and the rise of the multiplex means that such titles are somewhat more widely available in other parts of the country. In the end, though, the hunger for these sorts of films is more likely to result in films being released on DVD and theater screens simultaneously, and with an increasingly larger amount of people choosing the former over the latter.

In Jaws, the town of Amity counted on a huge influx of summer dollars to keep afloat the rest of the year. Hollywood is largely in the same boat, but we seem to be seeing the death of that business model. The problem isn't one big shark, which can be killed and done with. The movie business as we know it is being nibbled to death, and that's a lot harder to deal with.


At 1:59 PM, Blogger Jessica R. said...

Good points all around epsecially how Hollywood is addicted to blockbusters, but the crop of Best Picture noms does show an intresting business model. All excluding Crash were films I wanted to see and only one, Good Night..., was one I was able to catch in theaters as the rest played at a thirty minute drive away from here or played one week at the two screen "art" theater in town. There is big or at least profitable business for these kinds of films but Hollywood has been spoiled by the myth of the 150 million dollar opening weekend. It's not something you can predict and piling millons into some faded star cgi pile up isn't go to pull people into the theaters without a story. These pictures however, fill a need for more mature storytelling do very good business for their budgets and don't need extenstive advertising and tie in campaigns, just word of mouth for a steady build of ticket sales. That's the key though a gradual build, not seeing or even breaking 100 million even after dvd sales, but still getting a healthy sum particularly since advertising was drastically less. It's a I want it now world though, I doubt this practice will take hold.

At 2:12 PM, Blogger Ken Begg said...

I think the future will see two options for such fare. As noted, I think the films will be released on DVD at the same time they hit theaters, as more audiences--especially the generally older ones drawn to this kind of film--opt to skip theaters and all their attendent problems.

However, in large urban areas, with a concentration of people wanting to see these films, I think the arthouse theater complexes will thrive. However, I expect them to charge more and most probably actively exclude younger kids (say under 12 or 14), and moreover much more strictly police noisemakers than the multiplexes do.

In other words, I expect at some point a chain of smaller, high-end theaters for patrons willing to pay double to see movies in comparative quiet.

At 2:57 PM, Blogger BeckoningChasm said...

When I go to the movies, I go to the last showing Monday night--because I know the theatre will be deserted (even just after opening weekend).

For the noisy movie-goers (generally teenagers, though not exclusively), they're not there to see a movie, they're there to be seen themselves by their friends. It makes for a crappy "community experience."

B-Fest sounds like a much nicer way to go to the movies--you're there with like-minded folks who want to see the film showing (or participate in the theatrics)and appreciate the proper atmosphere.


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