ReelThoughts: November 22, 2009

"Permutations of Change"

Commentary by James Berardinelli


"A change, my dear, and it seems not a moment too soon…" So spoke Colin Baker at the end of "The Caves of Androzani," the actor's late-inning introduction to the role of Doctor Who. Those words might just as easily apply to the American Presidency, which flips back and forth from one party to the other based more on a dissatisfaction with the status quo than on an affinity for specific campaign promises. People don't believe politicians, and that's understandable. They don't expect them to follow through on a majority of what they preach on the pre-election pulpit. Years of broken promises have provided a strong foundation for such cynicism. Barack Obama has become the fourth president of the last six to be elected because of a desire for change.

If not for Watergate, the Republicans probably would have kept the White House in 1976. Even with the scandal hanging like a scythe over the party, they nearly won the election. That's because the Democrats were ill-prepared to compete nationally. Jimmy Carter, although not an ideal candidate in many ways, became the de facto "go to guy" in 1976. He won almost exclusively on a platform that promised to clean up government. It was enough for a populace beaten down by the corruption of the Nixon administration, the failure in Vietnam, and economic chaos.

Four years later, Ronald Reagan galloped into the White House because he represented a contrast to the Carter administration, which had become the political equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield. Carter's bungling - both perceived and actual - assured he would not get a second term. In 1980, voters paid less attention to what Reagan stood for than what he stood against. The 1984 election was a referendum for Reagan; the 1980 election was a statement against Carter and for change.

George H.W. Bush was elected in 1988 because the populace was comfortable with how things were going. Not so in 1992, when a tanking economy took Bush down the toilet with it. The Republican administration, 12 years old at the time, was viewed as being complacent and out-of-touch. With unemployment rising and sales tumbling, voters went to the polls in 1992 and cast ballots in favor of someone who had been a virtual unknown a year prior. The tide that swept 12 years of Reagan/Bush out of Washington ushered in 8 years of Bill Clinton.

Perhaps the reason the 2000 election between Al Gore and George W. Bush was so close was because there was no special mood for or against either candidate. Dissatisfaction with Clinton's infidelity was largely partisan and the economy, which had been healthy for most of Clinton's second term, was only beginning to sink in late 2000. Bush's election was not a mandate for change, especially considering that he actually lost the (meaningless) popular vote. Likewise, his victory in 2004 is evidence that those unaffiliated with a party were reasonably content with how things were going. John Kerry was a weak opponent but that wouldn't have mattered (see: Carter, Jimmy) if people wanted a change.

The landscape was different in 2008. Bush was disliked by nearly everyone outside of his core constituency, and that distaste spread like a virus through the Republican Party. A large percentage of those who voted for Obama did so because he was the change candidate. The thing that forced Republicans to retreat, retrench, and regroup was the economy, the cyclical boogeyman that has brought down many a president. In terms of public perception, Obama in 2008 was FDR in 1932: The Great Savior. It really took until FDR's third term before things were properly turned around, and he was aided by a world war. Obama won't have that long and hopefully won't have to contend with such a calamity. Still, we'll know in three years whether there's another widespread cry for change.

Is the economy really getting better? Don't look at the movie industry for an indication. Confounding many experts, the box office remained unaffected by the downturn even though it received no bailout. Theories for this abound, but it's probably nothing more profound than a desire for escapism coupled with reasonable prices. It's amusing to think that, a decade-or-so ago, when ticket prices hit $10 in New York City, there was an outcry. Since then, increases have been slow and moderate. Especially compared with other forms of entertainment (live theater, concerts, sporting events), $10 to see a movie is cheap. (I recently paid $150 - face value - for a World Series ticket.) $10 is affordable even for someone who is struggling.

2009 has been a year of expected splashes - Star Trek, Up, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, New Moon - and unforeseen hits - The Hangover. The biggest gamble of all, however, resides in the fourth quarter with James Cameron's Avatar. Fanboy interest is high but that contingent of the movie-going populace will not determine the film's success. It needs to appeal to a mainstream audience and that's a dicey proposition. Most of the time, movies with blue-skinned alien creatures do not cross over. Will this be The Lord of the Rings or The Golden Compass? Cameron's decision to hype the 3D aspects, going so far as to claim that the 2D version - which is how most people will see it - is inferior, could bite him. There's no evidence that movie audiences as a whole are "sold" on 3D to the extent that they will seek it out, and the $3 surcharge is an issue. Cameron might have helped his cause by being a little more bullish on the 2D version, as least publicly.

Website income is gradually recovering from an abysmal first three-quarters of 2009, which saw revenue from ReelViews down by as much as 50% for year-over-year stretches. This is an indication the retailers are pulling out the stops in advance of the holiday season, hoping for something more positive than last year's crushing blow. One area I'll be watching carefully is profits from my amazon.com affiliation. When I started with that program (evidenced by various "amazon" buttons around the site), I expected it to produce a solid, steady stream of income. The result has been disappointing. It's an open question of whether that's because people aren't buying much from amazon or people aren't buying much via my links to amazon. Since there is overhead associated with these links, a continued affiliation with amazon.com will have to be re-evaluated after the holiday season.

The economy will probably recover because the media is making a pronouncement that it will. The more news programs report about the recovery, the more it fuels the engine. Perception is reality. It's actually a little unnerving. I'm not big on conspiracy theories, but if all the major news outlets got together and decided to focus on economic negatives, they could probably plunge the country into a double-dip recession.

It will be interesting to see whether the early-year crop of movies in 2010 provides the kind of economic bonanza that the first quarter roster did in 2009. It is possible winter movies, traditionally comprised of lower budget throwaways, could remain impervious to a shaky economy. When days are short and temperatures are cold, perhaps people simply enjoy getting out of the house for a few hours to see something light. In that situation, movie quality is relatively unimportant and, as long as ticket prices don't skyrocket, demand should remain consistent. It's not unreasonable to expect the early 2010 box office to look much the same as the early 2009 box office, even if the economy as a whole is more robust. Inelasticity would argue that just as a downturn didn't impact multiplex habits, neither will a recovery.

There is one danger area, however: gas prices. There are two things at work here. If the price of gas trends upward, discretionary income is going to be pinched. If it costs $20 more per fill-up, that money has to come from somewhere. That's when the price of movie tickets, even if low, becomes an issue. A lot of people who are living close to the edge are going to give up the weekly night at the movies in favor of keeping gas in their car. Then there's the issue of driving to a multiplex. If it's around the corner, it's probably not an issue, but if it's ten or fifteen minutes away… Teenagers with limited funds aren't going to be able to fill up as often. Theater-going might lose its priority, and kids represent a lion's share of box office receipts. $3 gas, which seems likely within the next six months, probably won't hurt. But what about $4 (possible in 2010) or even higher? At what point do movies start getting squeezed out? And what happens if there are gas lines?

Of course, if one part of the industry suffers, another will profit. Collapsing multiplex attendance will lead to an upsurge in the home video market. Streaming video - the cheapest and quickest way to see something at home - would spike. Most Hollywood executives argue that digital video projectors represent the next major shift in motion pictures. This assumes that theaters are still thriving in five years. Their ability to weather a brief summer upsurge in gas prices during 2008 (it didn't last long) and a general economic malaise says nothing about their ability to survive a serious crisis.

How sustainable is the current motion picture business plan? The more I consider it, the more convinced I am it's built on a foundation of shifting sand rather than a slab of bedrock. The strategy for dealing with piracy is to whine about its illegality but not to do anything proactive or productive. The approach to keeping theaters relevant is to make a bunch of 3D movies and hope the "new" technology captures the imagination of the public. And the way to counteract waning DVD sales is to promote Blu-Ray discs but keep the price inflated. It's hard to imagine a near future in which gasoline prices do not become the biggest issue on the government's agenda. It's a matter of "when," not "if." These are the words of a pragmatist, not a doomsayer. If will be interesting to see how such an occurrence will impact the making, selling, and showing of motion pictures. Maybe in a few decades, we'll all be watching movies on a shiny screen in our homes while the former sites of theaters have been paved over and turned into parking lots. Change is coming, and this has nothing to do with Barack Obama.


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