Melting Down, Hollywood Style
No one does disasters like Hollywood. (Quick case in point: Giant comet hits the earth in 1998’s Deep Impact, below.) But what happens when the disaster is their own? If this summer’s movie attendance is any indication, they may find out, and sooner than even Steven Spielberg predicted.
Simple quiz: What’s the last big-budget movie you saw in the theater?
If you’re like me, right now you’re really having to think. These days, it takes an awful lot for me to actually go plop down $10 (or $11 or $12) and let myself be locked up with a movie that I probably won’t like.
Is that inertia on my part? Fussiness? Could be both, but honestly, it feels more like I’m just burned out. I love going to see a good movie, but Hollywood doesn’t seem to care about making good movies anymore, at least not as far as I’m concerned. So I wait for the DVD, or record it on Tivo, or just skip it. Usually these days, I just skip it.
That doesn’t have to be a problem for an industry grossing $10.8 billion in North America alone. They don’t even have to care that everyone else I talk to seems to feel the same way as I do. One woman’s anecdotal evidence isn’t worth much to a monster industry like this.
The problem for Hollywood might be if my personal experience reflects a wider trend. And worse, if the stars are aligned so that they may encounter a Series of Unfortunate Events (to quote Lemony Snicket). In that case, they might have a disaster on their hands.
Hollywood’s two problems: people and math
On one hand, you have the increasing apathy of moviegoers. According to the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) data, per capita movie attendance in North America went down more than 12% in the past six years. The number of people who didn’t see any movies has crept up during the same period — from 25% to 32% — and the number of people who go to movies frequently has been trending down, from 25% to 13%. That last statistic may worry them most of all, because the frequent moviegoers account for 57% of ticket sales.
There’s an undeniable picture of a movie-going public that is less and less interested. The response to the increasing apathy has been to raise ticket prices.
So at roughly the same time as you and I were starting to realize that we could get along without movies, the average cost kept going up. And up. The average price of a movie ticket in the US and Canada has gone up 37% in the last ten years.
And another adjustment that happened in the interest of capturing revenue is that more and more focus was spent on the elephantine blockbuster movies that cost a studio $70M or more to make. Those are the “tentpole” movies that balance out other box office failures. But what happens when the blockbusters ARE the failures?
Pop goes The Industry
It has all come together to create a bubble market — less and less value with more and more science fiction behind it. In June, mega-mogul Steven Spielberg made headlines by predicting that the industry might be in for a giant pop.
“There’s eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown,” said Steven Spielberg, who sat down with George Lucas at the USC School of Cinematic Arts on Wednesday. … “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
And it turns out Spielberg might not have to wait too long to be proved right. The summer blockbusters have all been underperforming this year. Did you go see World War Z? White House Down? Pacific Rim? The latest Lone Ranger? Me neither. And we were supposed to, in Hollywood’s estimation. They overextended themselves with these tentpole movies, and now they’re up against some realities that must look a little brutal to an industry used to seeing its profits tick up in spite of tumult, recessions and conflict.
Are they in trouble? Not in the immediate future — the film industry is just too big to be done in by one body blow. But the question isn’t the current bad patch – it’s whether Hollywood has, in effect, strip-mined its audience (to use a term coined by marketing guru Seth Godin).
I’m willing to take my anecdotal evidence into account: Although I like going to movies, I have gotten so fed up with offensive and uninspired films that I have just gotten over them. Most of the people I know are way ahead of me there. Families with children still like the idea of movies as a form of simple entertainment, but Christian parents are especially apt to be unforgiving to movies that create more problems in the family than they solve. And with the cost of taking a family to the movies edging up to $50, they’re likely to just propose creative alternatives.
Caution: Dance at your own risk
If the film industry did suffer a meltdown, it would be tempting for us to want to do a happy dance. The number of young people who have been negatively influenced by sexually charged or twisted movies is hard to assess. If greed to maintain bloated profits resulted in entire generations that prefer other forms of entertainment, we might all feel as if an enemy has met a well-deserved end.
I consider, for example, what Fr. John of Kronstadt said in regard to the mania for theatrical performances that he saw in his day:
What do theaters bring into the hearts of men? The spirit of this world, the spirit of idleness, of evil speaking, of joking, of cunning and wickedness, of pride, presumption – they do not bring any moral good to anyone. The authors of the pieces and the actors only give people what they have in themselves, their own spirit, neither more nor less. And do the actors think of public morality? Have they any intention of correcting people’s morals? None whatsoever. (“My Life in Christ”)
But surely there’s something ironic here. How many Christians now wish that those plays were the worst thing we had to fear. The best artful renditions of wickedness done onstage don’t compare with the hideous presentations of perversity and murder that can be shown perpetually on gigantic screens with perfect lighting, catchy music and breathtaking special effects.
Plays have lost market share, and movies and television have picked it up. We might feel as if we’d be glad to see Hollywood melt down. But if it did, what would replace it? Do we really want to know?