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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hollywood's box office decline.

For the first time since the start of the Great Depression, 2005 will mark the occasion of Hollywood pulling in less money than the previous year, the questions is why.

All the analysis’s that I have seen trying to explain the sudden drop in what has been for years one of the strongest growth industries in the world, have done so by looking at a single cause. Many look to blame what the writer of the analysis feels is a bad thing from people being upset over America “losing” the war in Iraq to disgust of Hollywood’s open “immorality”. In this look into what I feel is at the root of Hollywood’s box office backsliding I will try to expand my focus beyond a single causal factor.

The following are no by any means without exception and in no particular order.

Tired Predictability.

This is one mostly ignored factor at play in the losses at the box office this year. Simply put movies goers cannot be brought out in numbers to pay for a film whose outcome is known, unless the story is overwhelmingly powerful. The problem is that often the plot of an entire 2 hour film can be fully ascertained from the 1 minute trailer.

A text book recent example of this is the highly hyped, Oscar hopeful film The Constant Gardner. From the trailer one could see that this was yet another example of the little guy fighting against the overtly evil corporation. In the case of The Constant Gardner the evil corporation is played by a pharmaceutical corporation while the mild mannered little guy whose wife first discovered the evil truth and as since been murdered by the evil greedy corporation. Boor-ring.

The greedy corporation / power hungry government / trigger happy military are up to no good and willing to kill in order to keep it a secret, unfortunately for them the plucky little guy is willing to risk his life to shed light on the truth. It isn’t the politics of the film, which for full disclosure I don’t agree with, that make this story dull it’s the fact that it’s about the 856th rehashing of the same old, same old.

In 1975 when Three Days of the Condor smashed down the box office with an intriguing story of power mad secret division of the CIA out to kill their own people this formulation was new and fresh. Three Days is a classic film, while The Constant Gardner is a flop. The difference? 30 years.

As we close in on the end of 2005 not one single film that fits the Corporations / Government / Military / America is bad mold is even threatening to crack the top 10 in ticket sales. Last year’s The Day After Tomorrow was able to come in at 7th, not because people were excited to see yet one more film of how humanity is at fault for X but rather because the film promised to be a dazzling special effects show. Lacking the eye candy of the Day After Tomorrow, The Constant Gardner is looking to finish 67th in 2005, only marginally better than Doom.

Hollywood has always been full of duds, but the recent trend is for movies that should win at the box office – according to the old formula that spelled success three decades ago – to fare poorer than crap that people at least haven’t seen before, like the 40 Year-old Virgin which should finish out the year with almost 4 times the tickets sales of The Constant Gardner. Unquestionable star power, full press hype and the glitter of Oscar potential can’t convince people to spend money watching a film that they know they’ve seen many times before.

Pathological Contrarianism.

Over the last few decades a growing contrarianism has taken root and gone wild within Hollywood. The Hollywood that once stood toe to toe with the values of Joe Six-Pack now look down their noses at things that the vast majority of Americans hold dear. It has advanced to the point that if it’s popular in Kansas you can be fairly certain that Hollywood will have disdain for it.

Movies like Brokeback Mountain, which explores the relationship of two gay cowboys who hold a secret love, which they hide away from their wives and children, are heralded ground breaking films, but why? Secret gay love is not new or particularly stunning, but gay cowboys! It seems the easiest way to get cred among Hollywood is to take a cherished icon of middle American and drag it through the mud. Were they gay used car salesmen would the film get attention? I think not. Will the combined star power of Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger be able to bring out the masses to the theaters? Again, I think not.

This attitude can often be seen in the reviews of movies that do hold true to what are labeled as “traditional values”. Scott Holleran’s review of Narnia is typical of this reaction. He views CS Lewis’s crowning achievement as nothing more that dirty evangelical pulp.

In Scott’s review he constantly bashes the story for its theme of selflessness, decries Aslan (the Christ figure lion) for not using his powers to defeat the White Witch by himself, declares the Fox “two-faced” for lying to the evil White Witch, mentions Christianity more often than Lewis and Tolkien arguing over a pint, calls the devil figure White Witch the movie’s, “greatest asset” and shows his utter ignorance with the line, “Rock bottom is reached when Santa Claus drops in looking like something the reindeer dragged in and sounding more like Oprah than a jolly old elf.”

North Pole to Scott, that isn’t Santa Claus, it Father f*cking Christmas. He’s from the English tradition, of which the Englishman CS Lewis grew up with, that long predates the Coke-a-Cola marketing generated idea of a “jolly old elf”. If Scott had actually read the story he so confidently rips up he would have know who the guy in the sleigh was but instead he wrote from the template that one must show contempt for anything that upholds the old outdated values of the American rubes, especially if it’s an admitted Christian allegory.

Now there’s nothing wrong with a willingness to question icons, however for Hollywood they have descended into a worn grove that blindingly questions everything for nothing more that the sake of questioning, and it is as boring as tired formulas – not a recipe for getting butts in seats.

Stunning Disconnect.

There has been talk for a while now, mostly from the harshest critics of Hollywood, of the disconnect of the entire industry from the rest of America. They often site single example of personal hypocrisy in their attacks, such as Barbara Streisand’s admonishing of regular folks to save the planet by living frugally while she lives in lavish mansions. While galling there’s enough hypocrisy to go around and is not solely the purvey of the Hollywood elite.

Yet there is certainly a disconnect. Just look at the movies opening this Christmas weekend around the country;

Memoirs of a Geisha: Family sells daughter into sex slave industry
The Ringer: Con artist tries to cheat at the Special Olympics
Cache: Reporter is threatened while police refuse to help
The Matador: Salesman on vacation befriends a hitman
Munich: PLO terrorists murder Jewish athletes at the 1972 Olympics
Rumor Has It: Woman learns her grandmother was the real slut the movie, “Mrs. Robinson” was based on.
Wolf Creek: Texas Chainsaw style gore flick
Casanova: A gigolo meets his match
The New World: Europeans show up to ruin thing for the natives living “harmoniously” with nature.

This is what’s coming out on Christmas weekend?!? This from the same Hollywood that gave us It's a Wonderful Life. They couldn’t put in one single movie that had an up lifting or hopeful message? The short answer is “no”. Hollywood may not have noticed it was Christmas and for those who did the idea of family and all that jazz is quite possibly viewed as outmoded concepts from previous generations.

The whose and what’s its of how the virtuous Hollywood of Jimmy Stewart morphed into the distant jaded Hollywood of today is well nigh beyond the scope of this post. The point to be made is that Hollywood is in a disconnect, and that when you are in a disconnect from your consumer base you will almost find yourself losing traction with them, regardless of your product.

Story Revisionism

This is, what we can call, the last of the “product” points and I feel perhaps, may have the least impact. However personally it’s the one that really rubs my cheeks the wrong way.

Now when I say Story Revisionism I’m not referring to a director or writer taking, “artistic license” when dealing with an already written story or historical event. That’s fine, and sometimes near unavoidable. No, that I am talking about is when a key item is changed in order to cater to some political exigency or to conform to some preexisting world view.

A famous example of the first is the hack job done to Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears. In the book, a group of Palestinian terrorist fearful that the PLO might have a true peace with Israel, and on the outs ex-commie leaders of now democratic Eastern Europe conspire to nuke the Superbowl and rekindle US-Russian aggression. However, after the 9/11 attack the makers of the film decided to sacrifice the story on the alter of Political Correctness, over fears of offending Arabs. Yea, cause a movie is going to give Islam more of a bad name than the, at the time, still smoldering crater in Manhattan. So instead of Clancy’s villain we get James Bond style villain that is both as shallow and unbelievable as Ben Affleck’s acting.

As for the second category a great illustration is the recent flick Jarhead, based on a book by Anthony Swofford about his own personal experiences as a sniper in the 1991 Gulf War. The book paints a true to life picture of life as a sniper with the anticlimactic climax coming when Swofford, after being trained to be eager to kill a man in his sights, is ordered to stand down after, for the first time, “acquiring” an Iraqi commander as a target. Shortly after being ordered to stand down, the Iraqi commander and all the soldiers under his command surrender peacefully without a single shot. The movie tells a different story, first they cherry pick only the elements of the book that make the military and soldiers look like thuggish brutes, put a “why are we here” spin on things that can only be commentary on current events in Iraq since there was certainly no question of “why” in ’91 after Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Then in the movie’s anticlimactic climax Swofford, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is ordered to stand down, not so the Iraqis can surrender, but rather to not waste the ammo as seconds later the entire Iraqi force is killed by an air strike.

These are changes that cannot be defended artistically, and can be added to the soup of causes weighing down on Hollywood’s neck.

Changing Ground Rules.

The previous points all deal with the product which Hollywood is trying to get people to come out and buy tickets for, this is the other half of the equation.

From the birth of the moving picture, going out to the theater was a special night. For decades people would plan ahead, get dressed up and generally be excited by the big screen. After a few decades of wide spread television ownership a bit of the gleam had come off the movie going experience, people went in street clothes and maybe didn’t even make a night of it with dinner. However Hollywood and the theaters still reigned supreme and the 19 in non-stereo television at home just didn’t hold a candle to the theater.

The last 10 years have witnessed a watershed of change. The old gods are dead

Home Theater

When I started High School (1986) I was lucky enough to have my own 13in color TV and a VCR. If I missed a movie at the box office I was looking at a good 2 years before the film would be available on VHS at the local rental shop. I made damn sure that I didn’t miss films at the theater. Hollywood and their retailers ruled the oceans.

Today I am lucky enough to have a Mitsubishi 56in HDTV, Sony pro-scan DVD, Yamaha Dolby Digital 5.1/DTS/THX receiver pumping out to a Yamaha powered subwoofer and Cerwin Vega towers. I have a couch of great comfort and pet cats that like to snuggle. I have the ability to stop and start the film when I want. I don’t have to turn my phone off. I can have a beer. Popcorn is 40 cents. No one is ever blocking my view or kicking the back of my seat. The volume is never too loud or too soft. Shall I go on?

In the last twenties years the exponential growth in consumer electronics have presented a challenge to the traditional Hollywood/Movie Theater concept, a challenge that has been completely ignored. It’s not that they think you’ll keep coming no matter how much better the home option become, it’s that they just don’t even think of it.

Blurring the Lines

At the same time that the revolution in consumer electronics has taken place the Hollywood movie moguls have been squeezing ever more money from the theater owners. Looking to replace lost revenue theater owners started to place ads on the big screens before the shows. These early ads consisted of nothing more stills flashed up for a few seconds while music played. Now these ads have evolved into full motion, live action, commercials. Commercials just like you would expect to find on your TV at home.

At the exact same time that the electronics industry is trying to push the home experience up to the starts the movie industry is dumbing down theirs. Brilliant.

Sense of Urgency

In 1946 if you missed a show at the theater you could expect to never, ever see it. You got to the theater or you didn’t watch it, simple as that. By 1966 one could, if they missed a movie at the theater, at least hold out a slim ray of hope that if the movie was big enough it might be on TV in 5 or 6 years. And while the overall experience would stink they’d be able to see it, if nothing else. Twenty years later in 1986 if I missed a show I was, as I stated before, looking at about a two year lag before I could rent the film. The experience hadn’t improved much since ’66 but I could at least pause the tape if I needed to toilet.

What about today? Well I was interested in the film Kingdom of Heaven, guys in armor, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, you know I wanted to see it. But, sadly I missed it during its run. Kingdom of Heaven left the theaters on 9/1. On 11/25, less than 3 months later, I purchased it on DVD at a used DVD store for $8.99.

What was once “never” has become, “wait 3 months and own it for less than the cost of one ticket”, and people in Hollywood throw up their hands in wonder at ticket sales backing off.

The Future.

As long as the Hollywood “elite” maintain the current world view they will continue to produce cynical drivel like anti-war activist George Clooney’s war for oil mantra Syriana while deriding Lewis’s Narnia as religious poppy-cock. At the same time Hollywood is still a business – no matter how many pinkos live there – and as long as Narnia opens with $67m to Syriana’s $12m then as much as it pains the “elites” and gets under the critics skin they will continue to create films that cater to the base elements in America.

The real question for the future is the status of theaters as they are squeezed between the greedy movie houses and ever improving home technology. In the Eighties a night at the theater presented a wide representation of ages, today the theaters are over run with teens as adults that can swing $30 for tickets and popcorn almost certainly have some degree of home theater. This creates yet another snow balling mass as more teens drive more adults away, creating even more teens.

There are owners trying to fight back. In LA a few theaters advertise age minimums and no pre show commercials. Here in Columbus a local owner has opened a high dollar venue with leather seats, gourmet foods and a full bar in order to entice the adults to the screens. It’s too early to tell if these attempts will work.

The future could be a multi tiered theater network with the top catering to adults willing to spend money for a special night out. Or, the future could be full of boarded up movie houses as film are released directly to consumers, or some combination of both.

One thing that is for certain is that single cause analysis’s of the loss of ticket sales over these last 14 months are off mark. There are many different factors at play and no one adjustment will be able to stem the tide of change, in fact it may not be possible to stem the tide at all. Either way we as movie goers should be able to sit back and enjoy the show.

NOTE: Gross revenue provided by, Box Office Mojo, who require an account to view the numbers. You can view them only after creating the account, and only for 3 days without paying for the service.


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