The Implosion of Cinema: A Bleak Future for the Film Industry
The first time I remember going to the movies was to see Brad Bird’s delightful animated picture The Iron Giant. I was six years old, and the weeks leading up to the film’s release were filled with as much childlike anticipation as the weeks leading up to Christmas. TV spots showing bits and pieces of the film were on almost daily, and my dad would constantly tease me with the prospect of going to the theater to see it. To me, it wasn’t just a movie; it was a spectacle which promised to transport me to a realm of fantasy and adventure. And that was exactly what it felt like when my family and I finally went to go see it. It was a lovely experience, and one that I won’t soon forget. And there have been times when I’ve felt that same rush of pure cinematic energy, like when I saw Spider-Man, The Last Samurai, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. But it has come to the point where I find myself losing that appreciation for the novel nature of the movies, and have become quite content with not going to the theater to watch any given release. It’s an odd and slightly nasty feeling because I can’t help but think that I’m betraying the purpose of the movies, which is to go out with a group of people to join a larger group of people in sharing a common experience. In the end though, I have come to embrace the idea that I can enjoy any movie anywhere, and moreover, that idea seems to be one that is being embraced by more and more people.
It’d be one thing to claim that this is just one person’s theory, but what lends credence to the idea that we may be seeing the irreversible alteration of the movies is that some of Hollywood’s greatest icons are expressing concerns about the future of the film industry. Last June, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas gave a talk at USC where they echoed sentiments about the massive changes that will be occurring in the world of cinema. They addressed issues about the migration from film to TV that is currently taking place, rise in ticket prices, and the advent of streaming technologies that allow people to watch films wherever they are.
Spielberg also claimed that an implosion in the film industry was inevitable, and would be brought about by about by five or six $250 million movies tanking at the box office. What’s worth noting is that just under a month after Spielberg made this prediction, The Lone Ranger was released in theaters, and was bombarded with professional and public criticism. The $215 million movie only ended up grossing $89 million and proved to be one of the most disastrous endeavors that Disney has ever invested in. While it is tough to argue that Spielberg’s Prophecy is being fulfilled in a timely fashion, one can’t help but be a little surprised at how close these events coincided. Moreover, as people become more content with staying at home to watch a movie or TV show, there is less incentive to go to the theater. Variety reported that the theater attendance of the 18-24 year old demographic had fallen 17% in 2013. And while Chris Dodd, head of the MPAA, is optimistic of the entire situation and says that, “We can embrace technology…”, one can’t help but think that he’s trying to shrug off the whole situation in spite of the fact that fewer people are going to the movies.
There are two main reasons for this lack of theater-going, and they were already more or less expressed by Spielberg and Lucas. The first is that streaming devices have made it incredibly easy for people to access a myriad of movies from the comfort of their home. While there was a time that people had to wait for a VHS or DVD release of a particular movie, nowadays providers like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video often allow people to watch movies well before they are released on DVD or Blu-Ray, so now the manner in which people get to see movies is even more expedient.
One should also take into account that having an entire library of films and TV shows available at your fingertips almost nullifies the point of going to the movies. Film critics have to watch almost every release because that is their job, and hardcore cinephiles will at least do their best to try to see everything they can because it’s in their nature. The average theater-goer, however, will only be interested in perhaps one or two movies that are playing at their local cinema. But if that same theater-goer has a Netflix subscription, then they can watch any movie they want anytime they want. Moreover, the movies that are playing at the theater will eventually be available on these providers, so it becomes easier to just wait a few extra months to see the movie at home than to go out and watch it. The theater has, in essence, moved into out homes, so there is no reason to go to it when it has already come to us.
The second reason that theater attendance has been declining is more of an internal occurrence in the film industry. More and more we are seeing names that used to be placed on marquees show up at the beginning of TV credits. Names like Martin Scorsese (executive producer of Boardwalk Empire and an upcoming HBO project), Steven Soderbergh (director of Cinemax’s miniseries The Knick), and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson (True Detective). There are even shows like House of Cards which stars the likes of Kevin Spacey and is exclusive to Netflix. Just the fact that internet providers are also sources for critically lauded shows indicates that film is far from being the only source of quality cinematic entertainment. It used to be that film and TV existed completely independent of one another, and those who were involved in one didn’t often involve themselves in the other. But now, not only are we seeing more and more movie actors showing up in TV shows, we are also seeing film directors and film writers express a desire to enter the world of TV programming.
This migration is spurred on mostly by a lack of appreciation for the artistic vision of certain directors. Steven Soderbergh has expressed a large measure of disappointment in the the film industry, saying that many directors are treated badly and have their artistic intentions supplanted by studio demands. Soderbergh even went so far as to say that, “Movies don’t matter as much any more,” and has said that he will be retiring after production wraps on The Knick. Spielberg expressed similar sentiments at the USC talk when he said that his 2012 biopic Lincoln was almost made into an HBO film because it was considered too much of a departure from the his usual projects. Basically, the only directors who have a “guarantee” that their film will be made are those who heed the advice and direction of studio executives and financiers.
This narrowing of what filmmakers are allowed to produce has given them cause to search for other means by which they can release their projects, and seeing as how premium cable networks like HBO, Showtime, and Starz are so lax with the content that filmmakers are allowed to produce, it stands to reason that they’d go to those networks in order to get their projects made. This is why we are seeing more novelty on TV rather than in the movie theater. One of the major complaints that film critics have against many modern movies is that they feel like they’re nothing more than lifeless products. Every action movie is the same action movie, every rom-com is the same rom-com, and so on and so on. This is not a complaint that you see directed at TV programming. You may see different networks showcasing similar programs (e.g. HBO has Boardwalk Empire and Starz had Magic City), but they are different enough in tone and style that most audiences are able to accept them for being their own thing. By providing audiences with a multitude of different shows, networks have sidestepped one of the biggest problems that filmmakers face: repetition. Sadly, this is a problem that has been made worse and worse as studio executives choose homogenized films over the more creative variety. Granted, not every attempt at making something original works, but at least it keeps things from getting too dull.
So, where do we go from here? Well, it’ll be up to each and every person to decide what they do when it comes to these changing cinematic paradigms. I for one think that movies are far too engrained in our culture to disappear entirely. With that in mind, I offer my humble prediction: a number of studios will survive, likely the most financially successful ones, and they’ll continue to churn out their usual stuff. The problem will be that theaters will have to increase their ticket prices so that the studios can recuperate their money from the dwindling masses. The only theaters and production companies that will be able to make movies without raising prices will be those that are more open to original content. In this sense, film societies and underground theaters will become more and more popular as they are the only ones showing different kinds of films. Hopefully, major studios will learn from this example and realize that what the audience truly wants is something fresh. Meanwhile, TV networks and internet providers will continue to flourish as they become more cinematic in scope, and the general audience will become more content with home entertainment.
It isn’t the happiest prediction, but it’s the best I got. And frankly, I’m not all that worried. Not just because the theater will (hopefully) always be around, but because the true nature of cinema will never be wiped out. At it’s core, film is all about telling a story, and storytelling is the one thing that can be appreciated at any time and in any setting. William Friedkin watched Citizen Kane for the first time in a theater. I watched it for the first time on DVD. Was his experience better than mine? I’d argue that it wasn’t. One can marvel at the beauty of Welles’s intricate camerawork and dark, brooding story on a 32″ LCD TV just as much as a screen that is 30′ x 70′. Just as studios shouldn’t narrow filmmakers’ visions, we shouldn’t limit the ways in which we can experience those visions.
I am reminded of the moment in The Shawshank Redemption when Andy is tossed into solitary confinement for a prank involving a record player. He tells his pals that at the very least he had music to accompany him during his time alone. One of them asks, “So they let you tote that record player down there, huh?” Andy shakes his head ‘no’, points to his heart and says, “It was in here.” That is where the movies exist, and in that sense they will never go away.
What do you think? Leave a comment.