I spend a lot of my time at my job pontificating the state of the movie business and commenting to news outlets on whether it’s good or bad. Lately, I’ve been robotically mouthing off that things are good, good, good! Why, Spider-Man 3 just obliterated every record in the book and now Shrek the Third is following suit and we’re only three days away from Pirates of the Caribbean! Everybody knows that this summer is going to record the highest total gross of any on record. It may even post the highest attendance of any on record, which would surely silence any critic that suggests that the good news is tainted by rising ticket prices and inflation. Browsing around you’ll find lots of statements that read like this one I found this morning-
“We are seeing a wonderful combination for distributors and exhibitors”.
I disagree. I think we are seeing the end of the line for moviegoing as we know it. Let’s take a look at the top 5 grossing films the weekend Spider-Man 3 opened and what they made.
1. Spider-Man 3 – $151 million
2. Disturbia – $6 million
3. Fracture – $4 million
4. The Invisible – $3 million
5. Next – $3 million
These figures represent the largest margin between one film and the rest in history. So the box office overall is way up over comparable weekends because of Spider-Man’s ridiculous numbers, but it’s just one film. The results are similar now with Shrek the Third; only two films are doing any business. And the thing that those two films have in common is that they were able to open on 4,000 screens or more and had unlimited millions at their disposal in terms of advertising dollars. My question is, how can it be good for the movie industry when only the films with the most money and most exposure are the ones that get people in the seats? Everything else is playing to crickets and tumbleweeds.
*Note* Dollar figures below are adjusted for inflation to make the comparison more apt.
Let’s look at it another way. Twenty years ago in 1987, the number one film of the year was Three Men and a Baby. That’s right, Three Men and a Baby. It opened on 1,006 screens and debuted with $17 million. Another big hit from that year was The Untouchables. It opened on 1,012 screens and debuted with $17 million. Then there’s A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 which opened on 1,343 screens with $15 million. When it was all said and done though, Three Men and a Baby finished with $274 million, The Untouchables finished with $128 million and A Nightmare on Elm Street 3 finished with $75 million. I know that’s a lot of numbers thrown out to prove one point but here it is summarized. Back then, all films were more or less released in the same amount of theaters with the same amount of push (with the notable exception of Beverly Hills Cop II). And what that creates is an environment where the audience decides which film becomes a blockbuster and which film becomes a dud. Nobody at a Christmas party in 1986 put out a bold New Year’s prediction that Three Men and a Baby would be the biggest movie hit of the next 365 days. They were probably still flabbergasted that Crocodile Dundee was the number one movie of that year.
Nowadays, choosing the biggest hits of the year is as easy as looking at the calendar because they have already been decided. The studios chose wich movies were gonna be blockbusters a long time ago and you are gonna comply.
What we are seeing is the death of the movie middle class. Films are having a tougher and tougher time being greenlit unless they are $200 mil+ blockbusters or under $5 mil faux-indies. Nobody wants to put $50 or $60 mil into something original or untested. Consider also that there have already been 11 films to open with less than $2,000 per screen in 2007. Per screen average is an accurate way of seeing which films are playing to packed houses and which films are playing to shadows on the wall. Only 11 films in all of 2006 opened with less than $2,000 per screen and we have already matched that feat five months into the year. More and more films are dying out there and how long will it be before studios figure it’s just a waste of time?
I know this theory places no weight on the actual quality of the films and you could surely argue that Spider-Man 3 is a hit because it’s good and the previous films are good but I think that’s being a little naive. Quality hasn’t had a thing to do with which movies are big in years. Would you argue that the two candidates with the most quality get to be in the big race for President? No. It’s the candidates with the most money and the most marketing muscle. Everyone else is Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader. Well, I’m worried for the industry that every movie besides the juggernauts are gonna become the Dennis Kucinich’s and Ralph Nader’s and will be doomed to the video store shelf for no other reason than some studio head thought that’s where it could best succeed.
Give every movie a fair shot, and let us decide. Otherwise, people will get wise sooner or later and the practice of going to see a movie in the theater at all will be dead.