Empty Seats

May 11, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

One of the big recent movie-related news stories is the decline in box office receipts. This isn't a one-time thing; it's an ongoing situation that has been building not only for months, but for years, and it is beginning to concern both movie studios and (to a larger extent) theater owners. The question everyone is asking is "Why?" The answer should be obvious even to a blind man.

Adults are attending theaters in ever-decreasing numbers. Anecdotal evidence suggests this and statistics confirm it. They are annoyed by pre-feature commercials, uncomfortable seats, rude patrons, and other conditions that can turn a night out into an intolerable experience. It's no wonder that most adults prefer waiting a few months and watching a movie on a DVD in the privacy and comfort of their own homes. I can sympathize with them. Given the choice, that's the direction I would head in. And judging by the e-mail I get, it's the preferred approach of many of my over-30 readers. That should really worry exhbitors.

With adults abandoning all but the most impressive top-notch art theaters (the one near me is packed on Friday and Saturday nights with patrons in the age 30-65 range), that leaves multiplexes to cater to teenagers. For high school students, a trip to the movies is an opportunity to socialize. For those viewers, it doesn't really matter what the movie is. Getting out of the house and spending time with their friends is the point. (My generation went to malls. This generation goes to theaters. The next generation will go somewhere else.) But there's variability within the teen volume.

Put simply, if a movie can energize the teen base, it stands to make a lot of money. Teens who only go to the movies once a month will make sure to see it. It can become an "event film." The problem is that too many movies look and feel alike. There's nothing special about them. We have reached the point of saturation and overkill when only the highest profile "brand" movies are likely to make a healthy profit. What's the only sure-fire hit of the early summer season? Revenge of the Sith, a Star Wars picture.

It's not that the movies are bad - at least not all of them - but it's that they fail to capture the interest and/or attention of the most reliable movie-going audience. Teens have notoriously short attention spans, which means they get bored easily. What satisifed them last year might not be good enough this year. They crave variety and new experiences. Movies are giving them generic regurgitations of what was hot five years ago. The Ring was a huge success - because it was new and fresh. The Ring 2 failed because interest in it (and its genre) was waning.

In the past, Hollywood has always counter-programmed a film or two during the summer - movies aimed at adult audiences in the midst of all the blockbusters. This year is no different, with 2005's contender being Cinderella Man. But Ron Howard's film faces a tough battle - getting adults back into theaters. The film may do well, but not as well as it might have fared a few years back. There will be a percentage of adults who will elect to wait for the late-year DVD.

The time is coming, if it isn't already here, when theatrical runs will become a secondary means of income to studios. The real money will be in home video. The fall-off at the box office is symptomatic of what some will view as a cinematic apocalypse. Either theaters will have to change or die. Unless they can offer something that isn't available to home theater enthusiasts, they will soon go the way of drive-ins, which now exist primarily as nostalgic venues. Our kid's kids will ask, "Grandma, what was a movie theater like?"

Theater owners and studios ask "why" ticket receipts are falling, but they know the answer. The real question is what they're going to do about it.