Picking up from last week’s essay, we now look at why people are staying away from movie theaters, even though there have been a few bona fide hits in recent years.
Ever since the popularization of television in the 1950’s, there has always been an alternative to going to the theater. Movies could be viewed on television. Certainly, it would not be until the advent of cable in the 1960’s that one could enjoy this fare without commercial interruption, but the point is that for over 50 years, there has been a viable alternative to the movie palace.
Even now, with home video and pay-per-view allowing one to see films in some cases only weeks after their theatrical release, the movie palace can still boast three things: First release, a big screen, and generally superior sound quality.
These three items were originally part of the moviegoing experience, that all added up to making it something special. But, what happened?
Some will argue that it got too expensive to take a family of four out to a movie. After all, by the time you consider admission, refreshments, and perhaps parking, you’re looking at an easy $60-70 or more. The only problem with this argument is that nothing is “too expensive” if people really want to do it. Vacations are too expensive, college is too expensive, dining out it too expensive, going to a pro sports event is too expensive, and so on.
A more realistic answer is that it might be “too expensive” for what you’re getting. The cable-savvy audience has no patience for commercials at the movie theater. If he pays for premium content on cable at home, that means no commercials, right? For this privilege at home he might be paying $40/month for several premium channels. Yet, at the theater, he is paying $70 for TWO HOURS and he still gets commercials!
But wait, there’s more.
The movie palace of the 1950’s has morphed into the multi-cinema center of the present, featuring mostly uncomfortable seating and a poorly maintained physical plant. The refreshments were always overpriced, but now the patron gets to stand in a longer line, often having to repeat his order to a staff with less than adequate English skills. And, should a situation arise that does demand management intervention, such as an issue with air conditioning, or projection, it is not always so easy to find a manager.
In short, the moviegoing experience is not quite so special anymore, so merely being there does not make up for the film itself being mediocre or worse.
Another factor, frequently missed, is that the filmmakers have forgotten what makes a feature different from a TV series. For the most part, a series (use Frasier as an example) is popular because people like how the characters behave, based on their predictable quirks. The story is not very important. More than that, originality in the story line is stifled—almost by definition—since the characters can have no “arc,” but must always behave in their predictably quirky manner.
In a movie, the story is all important, with someone’s character arc coming in a close second. But, for a character to have an arc we even care about, he has to be (eventually) a likable character. Filmmakers ignore these rules at their peril, but ignore them they have. Witness any number of failed romantic comedies, that are nothing more than TV sitcoms in fancy dress. (Jen Aniston’s recent career, anyone?)
Witness also any number of “situational” pieces revolving around the lives of quirky, troubled characters, with precious little plot. Only Woody Allen can make this work on film, and even he doesn’t always succeed.
Finally, the star system is outmoded. Can anyone argue with a straight face that Mission Impossible III needed Tom Cruise? While there still might be a segment of the audience that will go to a film just because Mr./Ms. Big Star is in it, when you run the numbers, it just isn’t worth it. Better to follow my simple rules.
Incidentally, everything in this piece is being advocated by many young film industry execs, along with the proposition that movie theaters no longer get first release. But since inaction, not action, is the best way to keep that high-paying movie gig, it will take a lot more failures before changes are made.