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The North American Cinema: An Endangered Species

Roger Ebert: Your Overall Paradigm Sucks

In general, you can agree with Roger Ebert or not, but when the man speaks he must at least be heard out. And to my delight, on the topic of declining cinema revenues, he’s come out swinging in regards to many of the same things that I’ve been bitching about for a while. The full article is here and it’s not long–it’s worth reading.

I just want to expand on some things. He begins by pointing out “the absence of a must-see mass-market movie.” That’s because, seemingly, unless the marketing plan comes in on a silver platter and monogrammed, already setup…Hollywood seems to be clueless as to how to proceed. Oh yes, there are exceptions: rolling Ghost Protocol out to IMAX cinemas a week early to get the ball and buzz rolling was a choice move. But there are more missteps than victories: why is Hugo, one of the best reviewed films of the year and the best live action 3D film of the year…sitting at only $62M worldwide box office? I would argue it’s because if you watch the trailer, it doesn’t set you up for what the film actually is. And while I always love to be surprised by a film (Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more about freedom than Let’s Kick Some Homo Sapien Ass and Road to Perdition is more family drama than crime drama), it always helps if the audience is given a freaking reason to show up.

[ad#longpost]It is true also: ticket prices are too high. I pay for tickets to see all the films I’ve Wayhomered, and there are few that I felt good about paying that much for. Usually it’s because it’s 3D and that upcharge is so seldom worth it. If a family of four wanted to go see The Muppets tomorrow night here in Atlanta, that would cost $38. For just around that amount of money, that same family of four could stay home and have a Muppet Film Festival of their own, watching seven films–that’s every single one available from Amazon Instant Video Streaming. That’s before you throw Netflix or anything else into the mix. We’re used to time-shifting everything now…how many families are waiting, knowing that The Muppets (or Arthur Christmas or We Bought a Zoo–insert family film here) will be out on DVD in three months? And oh look…for The Muppets, the three-disc Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy plus a coupon that lets you download the soundtrack runs you $34.99 pre-ordered. And…get this…I bet there’s bonus bits on there and you get to keep the damn thing.

Very true also: the theater experience is shite. Cinemas that are 21+ are fantastic and if they take the experience seriously and actually usher the place, wonderful. If by this point in time you don’t know to silence your cell phone–or you don’t even have the decency to act ashamed when you forget–please Do Not Breed. That family that spent $38 to show up? If their experience isn’t pristine from end to end, Mr. Cinema Manager Type Person, you are making it easier for them to buy the DVD (or Netflix it or stream it) and forget you exist.

Here’s the part that Ebert doesn’t address, because I think it’s hard to measure: I think Hollywood is learning to care less and less about domestic box office performance. Yes, it is still tied inexplicably to executive cred (although if at the end of the day you make money, not sure how you can lose cred over it), but movies are becoming huge performers. When you look with a worldwide lens, the disappointing but pretty (and thus pretty disappointing) Immortals is a powerhouse: $200M+ take. How much will it do with DVD? Blu-Ray? Streaming? How about video game tie-ins for films? Other media? Other spinoff products? The domestic release is, for a lot of films that aren’t as big as, say, Ghost Protocol, an afterthought. So they don’t care that they’re in cinemas for two to three weeks then gone.

What we need to track this is a more comprehensive version of that excellent resource, Box Office Mojo. In addition to theatrical release ticket sales, we need all of the other things that can be counted as revenue for a film. Then we can judge its true impact and not be surprised when the seventh Chipmunks film hits cinemas.

This would also prove the point to domestic cinemas: they need to do whatever they can to keep butts in seats…because they may be the only ones left who have a vested interest in them doing so. I have a sneaking suspicion they’re not going to figure that out until it’s too late.