August 19, 2005

WHY WON'T KANSANS GO TO THE MOVIES?:

Busted: Thirty years after Jaws changed the face of cinema, blockbusters are dying at the box office. Is our taste for reality outstripping our love of big-budget epics? Or is there something better on TV? (Tom Shone, August 19, 2005, The Guardian)

"I don't remember more anxiety, a bigger sense of uncertainty in this business in the 25 years that I've been doing it," producer Walter F Parkes told ABC News after the $120m Michael Bay action movie, The Island, took a paltry $12m in its first week in America. Other notable casualties of the summer include XXX: State of the Union which took only $13m in its first week; Ridley Scott's $130m Kingdom of Heaven which opened with a measly $19m; and Stealth, which debuted with only $13.5m. Studio revenues and admissions are down from last year, making 2005 the worst summer since 2001, when Pearl Harbor performed such balletic hara-kiri on itself.

"The box office isn't in a slump, it's in a slide," reported the Los Angeles Times at the end of July, as the box-office slump entered a record-breaking 19th week - a 1985 slump of 17 straight weekends had been the longest - and the media scurried after the story. "A hundred years of moviegoing, but will there be 100 more?" asked the Salt Lake Tribune. The news digest magazine The Week featured a cover showing the Titanic sinking as a boy slept in an empty theatre, and asked: "The end? Why movie attendance is on the decline." The Associated Press blamed "celebs for overshadowing their movies" - a reference to Tom Cruise's sofa-jumping antics on the Oprah show while plugging War of the Worlds. The rightwing critic Michael Medved blamed the problem on liberal bias in the movies, concluding: "It's the values, stupid." Others pointed to the dent in cinema admissions made by DVDs, and the ever-shrinking window between a movie's theatrical release and its DVD release - from six months to four, and now just three - which prompted one top executive to warn of what he called "Hollywood's death spiral". Audiences seem content to sit out all the hullabaloo that surrounds a movie's theatrical release to catch it later in their homes. Which means that big-budget movies now have even less time in which to perform before they are yanked from the screens by nervous theatre owners.


During WWII Hollywood helped the government fight the Axis. During the Cold War it blacklisted Communists and fellow travelers. Come the war against Islamicism and its stars and directors are in near lockstep against their own government. Doesn't explain the whole slump--bad movies are mostly to blame--but it can't help.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 19, 2005 12:00 AM
Comments

Musicals died too. Every form of expression waxes and wanes in popularity.

The "blockbuster" may be dying (or may not be, one year isn't a trend), but there will always be big-budget epics. They existed before the blockbuster, they exist in the theatre, and in music, as well.
It's in the nature of creative types to want to create huge spectacles.

Among other things: TV really is much better than it was in the 70s, Hollywood is in a creative slump, video gaming is growing by leaps and bounds, and the 'net always beckons.

However, none of that means that movie studios have to suffer financially.
They just won't sell as much product in theaters.

If you add DVD sales and overseas income to the domestic box office take, Hollywood has nothing to complain about.

Well-run studios make money, poorly-run studios lose money. Same as it ever was.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 1:21 AM

not only that, but a cruise past any well-run multiplex will find it teeming with activity most weekends and, in seasonal cycles, on weekday evenings, too. hundreds of thousands of neighborhood video stores are thriving businesses, and online film purveyors are successful as well. and that's not even counting the porn.

Posted by: lonbud at August 19, 2005 4:08 AM

No, the problem is that the high budget movies have tried to substitute computer action/violence and sex for content and plot. I predict that "The Great Raid" amd "March of the Penguins" will be big money makers, but Hollywood will not learn its lesson.

Posted by: jd watson at August 19, 2005 5:17 AM

Yes. it's funny how you sex and violence-loving Americans have to import your wholesome family entertainment from us secular-modern-rationalist-euro-atheist-darwinist-socialists, isn't it?

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 5:35 AM

Brit -- that looks like it is made by the people who made "Chicken Run" -- that was a really fun movie.

I saw an old Whit Stillman interview that came out after his movie, the poorly titled but excellent Last Days of Disco, bombed, and he was complaining how the huge number of movie screens has ruined the limited audience movie business.

Basically, if you can't open in the tens of millions on thousands of screens, you are pushed out of the theaters in a week. It used to be that your movie could float around and find its audience. Now it takes huge advertising budgets to even get the word out. And a $10-50 million advertising budget practically makes it impossible to make money.

I wonder whether the new HD video cameras will make a difference. You'd be surprised what you can do with a $3000 camera and a Macintosh and Final Cut Express.

Posted by: Randall Voth at August 19, 2005 6:57 AM

Randall - it is. They're Bristolians, too, so it's not all slave traders and terminal hunger strikers here.

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 7:07 AM

Brit:

Let's make a deal. You admit you are lost in a secular-modern-rationalist-euro-atheist-darwinist-socialist cesspit and we'll agree that Wallace and Gromit rocks. Fair? (It really is the best.)

Posted by: Peter B at August 19, 2005 7:26 AM

Ok, though the only time I ever got lost in a secular-modern-rationalist-euro-atheist-etc cesspit was when I accidentally got off the Tube at Tottenham Court Road and found myself wandering around Bloomsbury.

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 7:46 AM

Half Michael/half jd here. The special effects boys rule the roost and they have to up the ante to increasingly mindless extravaganzas. The same happened to musicals. But lonbud is right(boy, that hurts)that there is still plenty of demand for fantsies of the mindless destruction.

The same thing is happening with spy thrillers and legal/murder stories. For the former, nothing less than a near-miss plot to kill the president and nuke a city or two will cut it (thwarted always by a bureaucratic renegade). Agatha Christie would starve today--murder stories have to involve serial killers into torture and dismemberment. On my holiday I treated myself to a couple of thrillers including one by Tom Clancy where the terrorists staged machine gun attacks on shoppers in four ordinary shopping malls. I actually caught myself thinking: "Is that it?"

Brit is in a feisty mood these days and I don't want to encourage him, but they really do them better over there, especially when they drop the class whine and the hero's obligatory wistful brooding over his painful divorce.

Posted by: Peter B at August 19, 2005 7:55 AM

Peter:

Used to. It's been a long time since there was a good British movie.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 8:12 AM

Wholesome? Men and dogs living together and chasing after dewey-eyed sheep?

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 8:13 AM

Orrin:

Aren't they immune?

Posted by: Peter B at August 19, 2005 8:43 AM

One thing you guys haven't taken into consideration is that the profits of both the movie and music industry have suffered since everyone started buying cd and dvd burners and stopped going to the movies and/or buying dvd's and cd's. The decrease in profit margins has made the major companies much less reluctant to invest in anything that is risky or unusual; as a consequence we see the same, worn out, cliched movies, and less innovation and riskiness that is usually the mark of a good film.
I had initially thought that the trend of stealing from artists would eventually work out for the better; by forcing musicians to concentrate more on their live performances, and forcing moviemakers to be low-budget, but to push to envelope more. This hasnt happened yet as far as I can tell. Anyone disagree?

Posted by: Pj at August 19, 2005 8:43 AM

pj;

Why would it be so much different than tapes were?

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 8:46 AM

Can you get tapes off the internet?

Posted by: Pj at August 19, 2005 8:49 AM

What about the tradition of artists questioning the government, forcing accountability - what the media once did, but now is unwilling (Brad/Angelina sells more) or incapable (owned by idealogues who muzzle journalists and control content) of doing? Can't films critical of the status quo only lead to healthy debate, dialectical tension, that will benefit all of us? I'm always suspicious of unquestioning propagandizing.

Posted by: lmarvinjr. at August 19, 2005 8:55 AM

l:

No.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 9:00 AM

pj:

That's a negligible slice of the current viewership.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 9:02 AM

Oj

Are you kidding?

Posted by: PJ at August 19, 2005 9:10 AM

Randall: I enjoyed Last Days, but it wasn't a patch on Metropolitan or, by a mile, the exquisite Barcelona.

All: This is very much a box-office slump, not a studio revenue slump. Edward Jay Epstein, in Slate, goes into this in some depth, using confidential studio numbers. As far as the box-office is concerned, the difference between this year and last year appears to be The Passion, but I expect over time the box-office will continue to decrease unless going to the moview can be made into a much more pleasant experience than it is now.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 19, 2005 9:11 AM

jd. Your prediction that the "The Great Raid" will be a big money maker isn't shared by the dozens of movie theaters within a 50 miles radius of our Central Florida location. The only showing is at a small theater in New Smyrna Beach which usually features so-called art films.

Anyone know why this should be?

Posted by: erp at August 19, 2005 9:16 AM

pj:

No.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 9:19 AM

Was there a high-budget movie this summer that wasn't either a remake of an old/movie/TV show, a sequel or an adaptation of a comic book? Hollywood focuses on the known so much nowadays to insure a certain amount of first weekend attendance they refuse to take any chances with the new ... unless the new stirs their ideological passions to the point where they're willing to gamble on a political message over an assured opening box-office number.

That's why we're about to endure a glut of movies in which the U.S. is considered as evil or worse than the folks we're fighting in the WOT. Their dislike of George W. Bush outstrips their love of money, which given Hollywood's mindset, is probably one of the president's most remarkable acomplishments.

Posted by: John at August 19, 2005 9:20 AM

David Cohen
Whats the difference between the two? Do you mean less people are going to the theatres and more are renting, or are you acknowledging my point that most people dont even pay for movies anymore anyway? Or have the studios found alternate sources of income (sponsors, etc)?

Posted by: PJ at August 19, 2005 9:26 AM

And as for the point about liberal bias, in the movies, i must strongly disagree. Just like there is not the kind of liberal bias in the media that this site always claims there is, there likewise little to be found in the movies (anymore at least). Maybe in the 1940's, but the the ownership of major media has been consolidated into the same hands that profit handsomely from things like, war. Movies and news needs sponsors with lots of money. The only liberals bias in films and news is to be found in underground and low-budget productions that you guys have probably never listened to or watched anyways. If there was a liberal bias in the media, we wouldnt have gone ot war in Iraq.

Posted by: PJ at August 19, 2005 9:33 AM

Well, in that case, go us. Wooooohooo! Let's have Looney Tunes turn "Old Europeans" and most Middle Easterners into caricatures whom we can laugh at and hate ("His accent is sooo funny. Show 'em, Flag-Draped-Bugs! Drop the anvil on that rascally Muslim with his silly beard, Road Runner!").

You claim, OJ, that freedom is so important and you tossed around the "commie" business yesterday - you've reviewed Solzhenitsyn (favorably) so you know what he has to say about the necessity of artists for freedom and freedom for artists. And yet, you'd deny that freedom to the 'woods because they may, on occasion, be critical of government policies? Should artists all simply shift their views depending on who's in office?

Posted by: lmarvinjr. at August 19, 2005 9:37 AM

pj:

The bias isn't liberal but transnational. Now that movies have to appeal to an international audience they are less jingoistic and therefore less worth viewing for Americans.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 9:53 AM

Ah, once again dissent is treated as oppression. What about our freedom, as artists of commentary, to criticize Hollywood?

Posted by: Annoying Old Guy at August 19, 2005 9:59 AM

l:

I didn't say they shouldn't be allowed to dissent, I said their dissent isn't useful.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 10:13 AM

OJ:

No good British movies? Seen "Millions?"

I am going to see "The Great Raid" over the holiday weekend as a political act after reading some of the reviews in the NYT, etc. Medved thinks it is superb and I really enjoyed the interview he had with John Dahl and the call-ins.

I know I shouldn't feel this way but I cannot stand seeing Sean Penn, Susan Sarandon, et al on the screen anymore.

Posted by: Rick T. at August 19, 2005 10:35 AM

OJ obviously hasn't seen 'Sean of the Dead.' Funniest zombie-based romantic comedy ever.

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 10:37 AM

Brit,

Sean of the Dead was an outstanding film. Very risky and innovative; hilarious and scary; i cant say that about many other films.

Posted by: PJ at August 19, 2005 10:40 AM

Brit:

I let the tiger out of the cage. I was rooting for the zombies.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 10:49 AM

Rick:

It's not on DVD yet, is it?.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 10:52 AM

OJ:

Anyone who doesn't like a film wherein the heroes agonise over which LPs in the record collection are disposable enough to chuck at the flesh-eating zombie, goes down yet another notch in my estimation.

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 10:57 AM

And of course you were rooting for the zombies - that was the point.

Posted by: Brit at August 19, 2005 11:01 AM

OJ,

Films that appeal to a trasnational audience (films that one could then say have universal appeal) don't appeal to Americans? Have we really so distanced ourselves from the things that all human beings share - the needs and fears, the concerns and desires - that movies can't speak to us and to the world? You are, from what I've seen here, troubled by relativism, and believe in the existence of universal truths and values, right? What's going on then?

I'm curious about two other things:
1. Your use of "jingoistic" in your comment. It is generally pejorative. Is that how you mean it here?

2. How could the 'woods dissent be made more useful? Please elaborate.

AOG,
You say "dissent is treated as oppresion." Are you, as it seems, referring to the previous comments indicting Hollywood for its dissent? Good to see you're finally on our side, as you said yesterday. Also, I'm not sure if we have the time to go into a discussion of aesthetics, but I'd hardly qualify what goes on here as art (yes, I'm including my artless posts, too).

Posted by: lmarvinjr. at August 19, 2005 11:02 AM

Brit:

So have the zombies kill them right away and make it an enjoyable short.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 11:04 AM

Annoying Old Guy;

Think about the circular illogic of what you just said for a second.....you're criticizing critics for criticizing.....

I wouldn't that you guys criticize all of these "commie" films if you were doing so for better reasons; too often it seems like you guys are just shooting down films on the basis of politics, not for piss-poor artistry, a bad script, acting, etc.
Too often, you only like the type of films or works of art that fit into your very narrow-minded politics of good vs evil, with an easily deduced lesson; where everything is in black and white and a happy ending; The same kind of formulaic, overdone, film cliches that you guys started this article bemoaning.
The real artistic innovation comes from those artists who are open-minded and bold enough to think outside the narrow categories that you often limit your analysis to. The kind of openmindedness that challenges the established order......
Unfortunately, these are the same movies that you guys love to denounce as being a "commie" movie, or liberal, or whatever label you want to put on somebody who challenged the previously laid forms or expression. So to me its really funny when a lot a conservatives sit around bemoan the lack of innovation in an artform, while they shoot down anything that comes around that challenges their simpleminded point-of-view.

Posted by: PJ at August 19, 2005 11:04 AM

PJ:

Those are the only good films.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 11:07 AM

l:

Yes, fear of offending cultures that don't share our values leads filmmakers to dump them.

No, jingoistic is good.

They could criticize something that's wrong with the society, say abortion.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 11:11 AM

PJ: Movie downloading is negligible. Rounding off, its effect on studio revenues is zero.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 19, 2005 11:40 AM

Movie downloading is negligible for now...

There will come a time when enough people have powerful enough computers, hooked up to fast enough connections, that it WILL become a big thorn in Hollywood's side - and they are hyper-aware that such a time isn't that far off, another decade, at most, and probably not that long.

If they're smart, they'll learn from the music industry's thrashing about, and when the tipping point comes, they'll have a service ready to go that will permit paid downloads for the cost of a rental.

lmarvinjr.:

Art need not be perceived as art contemporaneously; all that's required is passion.

Thus, if we feel that we're creating art, we are, and nobody can gainsay us.
Certainly not the art establishment, which foists scatalogical monstrosities on an incredulous public, who are nontheless forced to support the continued production of such rubbish.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 12:16 PM

The US is so rich that Hollywood can appeal to only a small fraction of the population and still rake in the dough. Why make "The Passion" and make lots of money and get harassed at dinner parties when you can make "Deuce Bigalow" and make lots of money and not get harassed at dinner parties?

The next movie that shows any US military action of the past 50 years in an unapologetically heroic light will be the first. And will be a blockbuster...

There was an absolutely jaw-dropping discussion on NPR a couple of weeks ago about how Arabs have become the currently popular bad guys in American cinema, replacing Nazis & Communists from past eras, and how the only roles for Arab actors are as terrorists. One can only wonder what color the sky is in NPR's world...

Posted by: b at August 19, 2005 12:18 PM

Michael:

And folks are staying away from theaters in anticipation of that day?

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 12:20 PM

Michael: Tivo's going to be there momentarily, but given download speeds people are still going to have to order their movies hours or maybe even a day ahead of time.

The interesting thing is that the cable movie on demand services have such a lousy selection. The studios may well be blowing it.

Posted by: David Cohen at August 19, 2005 12:30 PM

oj:

No.

If I had the definitive answer to the BO slump, I would be a very, very rich person.

My opinion is that it's a combination of the factors that I listed above, plus what John said, and others touched on.

Thus, the long term trend will be slump-y, but in some years a film or two will catch people's interest, and those will be up years.

The studios should make DVDs of their currently playing films available at the theater concession stands for an extra $ 20 over the ticket price, beginning the second week of a movie's release.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 1:16 PM

Michael,
Sorry, I see discussions as discussions and art as art. Then again, I said I was concerned about entering into a debate about aeshetics . . .

but while we're at it,

you begin:
"art need not be perceived as art contemporaneously; all that's required is passion"

Then, you follow with your scathing blast of the contemporary art scene. Aren't the artists just adhering to your dictum?

And if the public is also "forced" (I assume you mean with their tax dollars - artists pay taxes, too) to support plenty of other programs that they don't necessarily agree with (say faith based charities) why shouldn't artists get their share?

Posted by: lmarvinjr. at August 19, 2005 1:31 PM

I'm with l on that one--the Bush administration is doing a great job funding art.

Posted by: oj at August 19, 2005 1:42 PM

OJ:

"Millions" is out on DVD Nov 1. The scenes with the saints are quite good.

Posted by: Rick T. at August 19, 2005 2:16 PM

oj:

No.

If I had the definitive answer to the BO slump, I would be a very, very rich person.

My opinion is that it's a combination of the factors that I listed above, plus what John said, and others touched on.

Thus, the long term trend will be slump-y, but in some years a film or two will catch people's interest, and those will be up years.

The studios should make DVDs of their currently playing films available at the theater concession stands for an extra $ 20 over the ticket price, beginning the second week of a movie's release.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 2:16 PM

oj:

No.

If I had the definitive answer to the BO slump, I would be a very, very rich person.

My opinion is that it's a combination of the factors that I listed above, plus what John said, and others touched on.

Thus, the long term trend will be slump-y, but in some years a film or two will catch people's interest, and those will be up years.

The studios should make DVDs of their currently playing films available at the theater concession stands for an extra $ 20 over the ticket price, beginning the second week of a movie's release.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 2:17 PM

Apologies for the multiple postings.

lmarvinjr.:

Yes, the artists are free to call whatever they do "art" - my point is that I don't have to agree that they are creating art, and they cannot disagree with the concept that I am creating art right now.

A discussion, but also literature, and perhaps performance art.

Faith based charities are evaluated by how well they perform the tasks that they receive funding for.

If artists will consent to their output being graded in some non-arbitrary fashion, then I have no problem with them feeding lightly from the public trough.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 19, 2005 3:48 PM
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