One-and-Done (Part 2): Root Causes

December 20, 2014
A thought by James Berardinelli

Link to "One and Done (Part 1)"
Link to "One and Done (Part 3)"

In Part 1 of this essay, I provided an overview of what I call the "one-and-done" phenomenon which has been responsible in part for shaping (and skewing) the 2014 box office for high profile motion pictures. Here, in Part 2, I'll discuss what I believe to be the root causes and why they are systemic and unlikely to vanish with 2015's more "desirable" crop of movies. Keep in mind that no matter how excited viewers may be to see Avengers 2 or Star Wars Episode VII, a specific cadre was no less thrilled about The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and (god forbid) Transformers 4 a year ago and that didn't save either of those films from severely underperforming.

One of the biggest reasons for the "one-and-done" phenomenon is the desire for instant gratification. This is nothing new. When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for the arrival of movies I wanted to see. I can recall doing countdowns for things like The Empire Strikes Back and Star Trek III. But, as impatient as I was in those days, my lack of restraint was nursery school stuff compared to the aggressive breed out there today. It's as if the verb "to wait" is anathema. Seeing a movie as soon as possible has become a need. Spoilers are no longer avoided because learning about a storyline at an early stage is considered desirable.

Social media plays a part in "one-and-done." A driving force for seeing a movie early is that it allows an individual to be part of the conversation. Sure, it's possible to pontificate about a movie one hasn't seen but there's an element of fraud to that. To get involved in all the virtual water cooler arguments and discussions, it's necessary to have seen the film. The conversation is at its hottest beginning shortly before the opening and it begins to die off early the following week. That's a five or six day window - a short shelf life by any standards. Anyone not seeing a movie as soon as it comes out is locked out of relevance, and that's a terrible thing.

When there's a new movie arriving every week, the previous week's release is forgotten by Wednesday when attention turns to what's next. Who wanted to see Godzilla once X-Men opened? Not many people, apparently. The lifeblood of "one-and-done" is living only in the present and the future. The past, even the very recent past, is undesirable. A thing is at its most interesting before its release. The moment it's out there for mass consumption, it begins to lose its luster.

Younger viewers are more susceptible to these trends than older ones. People my age might be just as happy (or, in some cases, happier) waiting a week or two to see a movie. Lighter crowds mean more leg and arm room and a reduced likelihood of having someone kicking the back of your seat. For the most part, those who see something on its second or third weekend are there for one of two reasons: because they are interested in the movie as a narrative device rather than the distillation of hype and marketing or because they're going back for another viewing. Unfortunately for theater owners, those in the first category are becoming increasingly scarce. Once you give up movie-going, the appeal of spending time in cramped seats with uncouth companions being bombarded by pre-screening commercials is baffling.

If I didn't review movies, I might see three per year theatrically. The rest could wait for home video viewing. It's increasingly rare for a spectacle like Interstellar to demand theatrical viewing. Most movies, even special effects-intensive ones, look fine on a good home setup. 80" TVs are affordable. Add things like Netflix, premium pay TV channels, and high end video games and the concept of dragging one's ass to a multiplex to see a movie loses its allure. Better to stay home and watch "Game of Thrones."

Although some first-weekend viewers are there because they're excited about the movie, many are there because it's the thing. $50 million marketing campaigns have made them believe that if they don’t see the movie, something will be missing from their lives. So multiplexes that are like ghost houses on weekday nights come alive on weekends with hordes of teenagers and college-age adults streaming through the long corridors, looking for theater #23.

So, to sum up, the reasons behind "one-and-done" are straightforward - it's the result of a perfect storm of three elements: the social media-fueled need to see a movie as early as possible, the fast death of a movie's "newness" with something ready to supplant it next weekend, and the continued dwindling of audiences that care about movies as more than "product." The question is whether these factors constituted a "blip" in 2014 or are becoming as unalterable as gravity and will continue to impact box office totals moving forward. More simply, is "one-and-done" the new normal? Not surprisingly, I believe the answer to be "yes."

I see no reason to believe we're going to see a fundamental change from 2014 in 2015 even if there are more attractive titles. (It should be noted that many of the high-profile sequels, reboots, and remakes look downright awful so I'm not sure how accurate common wisdom is in predicting a rebound in 2015. The Avengers 2 and Star Wars Episode VII can't singlehandedly rescue a year and, beyond those two, I don't see anything to distinguish 2015 from 2014.) In fact, there's no guarantee that The Avengers 2 won't be afflicted by "one-and-done." If it makes $250M during its first weekend and $500M during its theatrical lifetime, that's by definition a "one-and-done" film (albeit on a bigger scale than anything we've seen thus far).

Another reason to believe "one-and-done" will persist in 2015: the summer release schedule is just as crowded as in 2014: movies tumbling out of the gates one after another, with each getting just one week to be the new shining bauble. If Avengers 2 avoids "one-and-done," it may be because it's being given an unchallenged two-week window. Other films - many others - won't be that lucky. Good, bad, or indifferent, they will rise fast and fall hard, instilling a brief flare of hope with their big opening weekend grosses followed by depression as their second-week totals plunge 65%.

In Part 3, I'll take it as a given that "one-and-done" is the new norm and play with some ideas about where the industry could be headed. Since movies became a major form of entertainment more than a century ago, the cinema has weathered two major challenges: the TV and the VCR. This is the third and it will require the same degree of aggressive adaptability.