Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The studios MUST face reality: This is NOT a "slump."

Someone has to stop the madness.

To listen to the histrionics of the film industry trade papers, we are now in the midst of "the longest slump in modern Hollywood history" following the innability of "War of The Worlds" to not make as much money over the July 4th weekend as "Spider-Man 2" did one year ago.

The time has come for two realities to be faced. Firstly, that the term "slump" is actually studio optimism disguised as doom-and-gloom pessimism since, after all, it suggests that the current run of lessened grosses is a valley among peaks. Secondly, that they are almost certainly wrong, and that if "recovery" is defined as a sudden and prolonged rise is boxoffice then "recovery" is all but impossible at this point.

In dispelling the "slump" myth, the myths of the slump causes must also be put to rest: In all rational likelihood, This is NOT some kind of nationwide uprising against sequels, prequels, remakes and films based on comic books. This is NOT happening because some huge swath of Americans are "boycotting" Hollywood because they disagree with the political beliefs of actors. There are NOT huge movements mobilized in sympathetic support of Jennifer Anniston, nor in organized disgust at Tom Cruise. This will NOT be solved by going the Mel Gibson route and throwing anti-semetic torture-porn onto the screen to lure the "values voters." Dorm-ensconed Freshmen downloading bootlegs are NOT the main problem. L. Brent Bozell, Ted Baer, James Dobson, Daniel Lapin, Debbie Schlussel and Michael Medved do NOT know what they are talking about.

This comes down to two simple phenomena: DVDs and Video On Demand. The DVD format has shifted the post-theatrical market from film-rental to film-ownership. Netflix and VOD have eclisped the rental markets, and the windows are shrinking. The throwaway joke in Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending" about theatrical releases being advertisements for the home-video market has become a simple industry truth: DVD, not theaters, is how the majority of potential customers are preferring to watch their movies.

This is about business, markets and paradigms. The market has shifted, the business is tipping in another direction and there is a new paradigm. The sooner studios accept this, the more likely they will endure. The home/DVD market is secure and growing, and thus safe. It's the theaters that are in trouble, and if the studios continue to tie their fortunes too heavily to them they too will be in trouble. I don't pretend to be some kind of authority on the subject, but as someone currently employed in both the film retail and theatre business and as a longtime watcher of the industry, I believe the following steps to be the major things that need to happen for the industry to survive this major consumer-driven shift in it's structure:

1. The Theater Industry Will Need To Shrink. With respect to the theater biz: There is now less market for your "product" than there was before. In business, that means you need to make yourself smaller so that less money can be more of a profit for you. That's just simple math. The first move to make, to my mind: Start closing and/or consolidating the multiplexes. Small arthouse and specialty theaters are in no real danger, as the operate with minimal cost and serve devoted niche audiences, the DVD age does not hurt them any more than the invention of poster-prints has hurt The Louvre. It's the multiplexes that are taking the hit. Multiplexes were designed to be filmgoing for the age of shopping malls, and that function has been supplanted by DVDs on sale IN shopping malls.

Now, to my fellow Cinephile readers, take your Elitism Caps off for a second and lets all admit what we all know: Seeing films on the big screen does not carry the same importance to the majority of the public that it does to us. You know it, deal with it. Now put that Elitism Cap back on, and ask yourself: Would it be even remotely a bad thing for US if the majority of the public stopped going to movie theaters regularly? Do you REALLY enjoy the presence of the majority of the public when you go to the movies? The "majority of the public," once they enter movie theaters, tend to be loud, obnoxious people who can't disengage a cell phone to save their life, bring squealing babies because they can't be bothered to find a sitter and who's ticket-purchasing habits ensure the continued blight upon the movie landscape of films starring Jennifer Lopez etc.

In other words, would it be a BAD THING if the "mainstream" movie-theater industry simply accepted that the "Monster In-Law" audience is going to wait for the DVD and instead tip their efforts toward catering to the audience that's still going to the theater: Devoted cinephiles and film-buffs of all stripes who will demand edible food and clean, well-policed with a zero tolerance policy toward cell phones and will reward those establishments that provide such with patronage? Allowing, of course, for the continued "mass presence" at the big "Batman"-sized communal filmgoing events, which will continue as big draws on the "big movie/big screen" pretext.

2. Accept direct-to-DVD as a major market. There've already been rumblings of this. Face it: Some films just WILL do better on DVD, at theatrical releases don't help them. Right now, "Cinderella Man" is a theatrical failure, but everyone "knows" it's going to be big on DVD where the older, busy audience that it's aimed at will see it and love it. Already, the arthouse and foriegn markets have seen MAJOR increases thanks to their availability on DVD. Right now, the only reason many "prestige" films open in theaters is because they NEED TO to qualify for the awards season. DVD is the main market for films like "Yes" or even "Cinderella Man," so why not just be up front about it?

What I'm saying here is... this is no slump, it's a new world. And if properly handled, it can wind up a better one for casual and devoted film fans alike. But first, we have to stop the doomsaying.