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Posted November 2, 2005


The End Of Theatrical Cinema?


Rick Mitchell

[NOTE: The following represents exclusively the opinions and observations of this author, derived from his experiences within the industry and research work on its history as well as his being a regular, almost weekly filmgoer for the last 50 years. While he does not presume to be an expert on the subject, his experiences do lead him to question comments and opinions expressed by those who do make that claim.]

During the summer of 2005, the press, in various media, has been hanging crepe for the theatrical end of the motion picture business because of a precipitous drop off in attendance when compared to previous recent years. Although the discussion seems to have abated in recent weeks, it's likely to flare up again in end-of-the-year wrap-ups, especially if the situation occurs with holiday releases for which there are high expectations.

Motion picture exhibition is a business unique to the 20th Century, as, unlike traveling stage shows, etc., at its height film presentations in a theater were accessible almost anywhere in the United States and most foreign countries, but it's surprising that it has survived as well as it has over the last 50 years as its product suppliers have increasingly put theaters in competition with other content delivery systems for the same product.

Today production and distribution companies are essentially making $100,000,000+ direct-to-DVDs and view their theatrical release as $40-60,000,000 publicity campaigns for the subsequent home video release two and a half to six months later. And now both 2929 Productions and Steven Soderbergh and a consortium involving Morgan Freeman have announced plans to release films theatrically and on DVD the same day, something incoming Disney CEO Bob Iger is proposing as the business model the production/distribution areas of the industry should take up! While the first film Soderbergh plans to release this way does not sound like it will be a significant hit in either venue and it's highly unlikely the Freeman company will get access to any high profile films initially, it's only a matter of time before some junior bean counter in a distributor-owning conglomerate will conclude that this might be the only way to break even on some dubiously commercial $100,000,000 project.

Bob Iger, CEO, The Walt Disney Company

There is clearly a disconnect not only between production/distribution and exhibition, perhaps the biggest negative result of the infamous Divorce Decree of 1948, but also between those doing the discussion and those who are actually going, or not going, to movies in theaters. This discussion has been founded on four major, overlapping fallacies: a flawed definition of the audience; ignorance of distribution and exhibition practices and how they've changed over the years; the effect these changes have had upon the moviegoing experience; and of what the majority of moviegoers would like, or are willing to pay, to see IN THEATERS.

The American moviegoing audience has NEVER been a single monolithic group. It has always been comprised of THREE BASIC GROUPS: essentially 15-24 year olds, 25-50 year olds, and those over 50.

The first group has actually been the most important one for the last century, the one that, until recently, could be counted upon to go to the movies on   at least a biweekly basis. Prior to the Seventies it was not uncommon for kids as young as 8 to regularly start going by themselves to neighborhood theaters in walking distance of their homes (that's the age at which I started!), but the 15-24 demographic is the most significant as they have more freedom in choosing what they want to see; remember William Castle's dictum: "a 12 year old will want to see anything a 16 year old wants to see but not vice-versa," making the older demographic in this group the one to target. And, that demograhic is more likely to be comprised of dating couples for whom going to a movie is an "economical" date. Also, until student discount prices were introduced sometime in the Sixties, everyone over 11 had to pay the full adult admission price. Even after the introduction of television, this group continued to be steady moviegoers and home video did not cause a significant drop in their ranks. However, we now have the first generation growing up with laptops, portable video game and DVD players, cellphones, etc., which, for the moment, does seem to have caused an erosion within it. A recent poll reported a dropoff in attendance of 15-24 year old males, the subgroup most likely to go, particularly to genre movies, on a regular basis, because of these alternate distractions, which is ominous in its implications, as is current excitement over iPods that can store and play back video. The screens may be tiny, but this is a generation used to watching video and/or playing games on tiny video screens, so it's too soon to tell if this trend will continue.

It's in the second group, the 25-50 year olds, that most of the erosion has occurred. Actually, the industry has had TWO BIGGER AUDIENCE DECLINES OVER THE LAST 85 YEARS and only Edward Jay Epstein on NPR's "Day-To-Day" has pointed out that the current one is just the latest in a series of slippages and recoveries in the second decline that's actually been going on for the last 38 years, caused by significant competition for the public's free time after periods in which moviegoing was their predominate or sole entertainment source. The major one: this is the demographic that is starting families, which complicates theatrical attendance except at drive-ins, one reason why those venues were so popular during the Baby Boom. Additionally, they are starting jobs and advancing in careers that may call for overtime, and the more successful members often develop other recreational interests that they prefer to regular moviegoing.

There is, and has always been, a sub-group in this age range, singles and childless couples, who generally continued regular moviegoing, especially, the less affluent ones, and they extend into the third, over 50, group which also includes parents whose kids are old enough to no longer need parental supervision and who gradually returned to moviegoing and other activities outside the home, though not as frequently as the first group.

Television's role in this erosion has been distorted; it did not become a factor in the 25-50 year old group's decline as soon as some historians have claimed. (Remember, there weren't that many stations or sets in 1947, but the ones that did exist were in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and because people in the upper levels of the entertainment industry were in a better position to buy sets than the average person, it was a factor in their everyday lives sooner than in that of the general public. Their discussions of TV's effect on their lives and careers in print and on radio have been the foundation of this historical error.) TV did become an increasing alternative to going out to the movies in the Fifties, especially after 1955, when the major studios got seriously into TV production and brought a higher level of production value to the dramatic shows being done at the time. The release to TV of post-1948 features in 1960 and their presentation on the networks in prime time eliminated the necessity of seeing a film in a theater for those willing to wait two years for its video release unless it was a racy adult film like "Lolita" (1962) or "Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf?" (1966), which wasn't likely to make it to the tube, or if so, in a highly emasculated form. Cable and home video would later take care of this reason to see such films in a theater.

And since the Sixties there has also been a significant but rarely acknowledged difference along class lines in all of these audience groups from those of college attendance age upward, between those whose tastes run to arthouse films and the larger audience for mainstream entertainment films. Unfortunately, the focus of this summer's discussion has been almost exclusively on the former, overlooking the fact that this is still a smaller portion of the audience than that for mainstream entertainment films. Theater chains like AMC, Mann, Pacific, and Regal are being more negatively impacted than Laemmle or Landmark and THEIR situation is the primary focus of this commentary.

The second fallacy stems from the attitude that distribution and exhibition have always operated the way they've been doing for the last 25 years, notably opening films in thousands of theaters on the same day. This lack of historical perspective is not unexpected given the fact that there has been no serious study of the interrelationship between distribution and exhibition equivalent to those devoted to production, especially over the last 35 years. (A couple of friends of mine with backgrounds in distribution going back over 50 years continue to resist my inducements for them to do such a work.)

In fact, beginning with the practice of building movie palaces in major cities that started about 90 years ago, first run meant a slow, staggered rollout of one to two week engagements in approximately 75-100 cities that usually took six to eight weeks before the films were made available to neighborhood houses. Various companies began experimenting with wider concurrent release patterns starting in 1962 and the practice really took off in the late Seventies. (For the record, United Artists had experimented with this in the New York area in the summer of 1956, and again, along with 20th Century-Fox, in 1961, though some sources credit David O. Selznick as pioneering it in select cities with "Duel In The Sun" in 1947.) The previous release pattern would have made the recent emphasis on opening weekend boxoffice figures impossible to calculate, of course.

And having films incur a boxoffice dropoff of 50% or greater in their second week of release was not unusual in the past. A look at VARIETY from between 1945 to the point in the mid Seventies when it stopped publishing boxoffice reports from theaters in about 50 major cities across the country would show that, except for roadshows and special limited releases and aside from the occasional "sleeper," THERE WAS ALWAYS A CONSIDERABLE DROP-OFF WHEN A FILM WAS BOOKED FOR MORE THAN ONE WEEK! (I'd have to go back and do a more in-depth study to get an average of the percentage, but I'd guess it was usually 40-50 percent.) Since most people who really want to see a particular film have always done so the first weekend or within the first week that it plays in their area, such a dropoff is to be expected.

Nor was first run success a key gauge of a film's popularity in times past. A, if not, THE major factor in the success of motion picture exhibition in the past has been that it was the cheapest form of non-athletic entertainment outside the home available to the majority of people in the 20th Century. According to such sources as WEEKLY VARIETY, exhibitor publications like BOXOFFICE and MOTION PICTURE HERALD, personal observation over the last half century, and conversations with others who grew up in other parts of the United States, prior to about 1980 MORE PEOPLE DID THEIR REGULAR MOVIEGOING AT LOWER PRICED SUBSEQUENT RUN THEATERS SUCH AS NEIGHBORHOOD HOUSES, CHEAP GRIND HOUSES, AND DRIVE-INS IN THE FIFTIES AND SIXTIES, THAN IN FIRST RUN VENUES. "Subrun" has been overlooked in studies based on BOXOFFICE INCOME because, unlike first run, where the distributor can get 90-50 percent of the first week boxoffice, with percentage reductions for each subsequent week, initial subrun engagements were usually for a guarantee vs. 50 percent of boxoffice, working down to a flat rental, which in the Fifties and Sixties could be as low as $5 for a one-to-four day run; in the early Seventies, $50 was the minimum rental in the L.A. area. Although "subrun" exhibitors were supposed to report their total boxoffice to the distributors, one of the ongoing fights between distributors and exhibitors has been the accuracy with which they did so, if at all, thus making distribution net income a somewhat dubious measure of a film's actual popularity. But it does explain how certain genre films of the Fifties could become cultural icons without appearing on any lists of "Top Grossing Films."

In retrospect, it may have been a major mistake to essentially eliminate "subrun" by the trend to wide multiple theater openings, given contemporary audience complaints about theater prices and "value for cost." Personal observation in Hollywood in the Seventies and Eighties suggests that just as many people waited a month or so to see films second run as went to see them first run on the Boulevard. They were also more likely to wait to see non-genre films that had opened exclusively in Westwood on their subsequent wide release in smaller, cheaper local houses. Indeed, many second run houses in the area, like the infamous World on Hollywood Blvd., closed not because they were losing business, but because the property was owned by someone other than the exhibitor or theater chain who decided they wanted to put it to other use.

The majority in this audience was not the kind of upscale trendoids that have made venues like L.A.'s Arclight, Bridge, or Grove so popular for the moment, but people between student and senior prices with limited incomes, who did have TV sets, but still wanted to get out of the house on occasion and the best recreation they could afford was either a movie or a bar, or both. Though "bargain" houses still exist in outlying areas (there is only one in the entire area considered the L.A. Westside, the Vine on Hollywood Blvd.), as the general elimination of "subrun" began before home video became a significant factor, it's not known the degree to which audiences who preferred to see films in accessible lower priced theaters would continue to do so, but it might be worth exploring, in the smaller auditoriums of megaplexes, for example.

And contrary to the industry's positive hype for multi and megaplexes, they have also been a major reason for attendance dropoff of over 25s in recent years. Exhibition boosters claim that it's the COMMUNAL EXPERIENCE that draws audiences to the theater. Most recently director M. Night Shaymalan voiced this at an exhibitor convention when expressing his open opposition to the above mentioned Soderbergh plan. While this "social aspect" is still true to a degree, particularly for those of senior high school and college age, as far as the overall "adult" audience is concerned, it seems to apply only for comedies.

When the older group attends at all, it is most likely to be on a Saturday evening, after a hectic day of either overtime work or dealing with their kids or both. Where before multiplexing, they could attend a single screen venue with fellow adults there for the particular, usually mature themed, film, now they have to deal with parking hassles and lines of often rowdy young people headed for films geared toward that age group at both the ticket booth and the concession stand, as well as obnoxious patrons in the auditorium itself. There have long been complaints and comments about people talking and making other distracting noises during a film, even before cell phones. They are also pickier about the quality of the presentation with too loud sound and too dim and/or out of focus projection being major complaints made especially by those affluent ones who have high end home theater systems.

In addition to that, based on what I've overheard from the general public, as well as the letters on the subject from its readers that the L.A. TIMES has chosen to print, it's also the INCREASING HIGH COST OF ATTENDANCE FOR PRODUCT THEY DON'T FEEL IS WORTH IT WHEN THEY HAVE CHEAPER OPTIONS FOR VIEWING IF THEY CHOOSE TO ULTIMATELY DO SO.

This is the most controversial aspect of the discussion. ALL OF THE COMPLAINTS I'VE HEARD OR READ ABOUT THE QUALITY OF RECENT PRODUCT HAVE COME FROM CRITICS AND PEOPLE OVER 25, especially from the arthouse crowd, and are essentially the same complaints they've been making for the last thirty years, ever since the success of "Jaws" (1975) and "Star Wars" (1977) shifted Hollywood toward the so-called blockbuster/tentpole mentality. Yet, the general mainstream public, even the over-25 set, HAS NEVER ENTHUSIASTICALLY EMBRACED ARTHOUSE FILMS AND THERE IS NO EVIDENCE THAT THEY WILL DO SO IN THE FUTURE.

Ever since it was embraced by the middle class 90 years ago, motion pictures, both as an entertainment medium and an art form, have suffered from "the snob factor," the attitude that they were inferior to the older traditional literary/theatrical art forms. Even after the East Coast culture mavens were forced to accept film as a serious art form because of its enthusiastic embrace by college students of the time, where American films were concerned, respect was still only extended to those films most like novels and plays, with a continued disdain for the type of fare uniquely suited to the film medium and popular with "the great unwashed masses."

That the studio executives most responsible for deciding what pictures get made have increasingly been of this mindset has not helped the situation. It's often overlooked that certain key production decision makers of the so-called "Golden Age," Harry Cohn, Walt Disney, Jack Warner, Darryl Zanuck (billed alphabetically) and even Louis B. Mayer, all essentially came out of that low/middle class American market toward which their films were aimed. Also in those days, the studios could get some indication of the potential response of the NATIONAL audience to new films by previewing them in those parts of Southern California inhabited by transplants from the Midwest. And before the Divorce Decree, the vertically integrated companies could get valid feedback on not only their own product, but that of other companies whose films played on their screens as well.

This became another unacknowledged negative of the Divorce Decree as the relationship between distribution and exhibition became more contentious, and attrition in studio executive ranks resulted in replacements from the insular world of the generic "Hollywood" who had no real knowledge or experience of audiences outside those of the L.A. Westside and its New York equivalent. While giving lip service to the increasingly important teenage/young adult market with cheap rock-and-roll and genre films, they continued to try to recover the "adult" audience with racy fare. 1965, the year of "The Sound Of Music," and in the south and Midwest, "Shenandoah," was the penultimate year of viability for that mainstream middle class ADULT audience, the impact of its declining interest signaled by the well documented failures of "Doctor Dolittle" (1967) and "Star!" (1968). The theatrical audience that was left was fragmented between the primarily entertainment seeking teenagers and non-collegiate young adults which had been successfully and respectfully nurtured by American International and its copycats, and the collegiate arthouse crowd, as noted above. Given that the production executives of the time were all college graduates, mostly from east coast liberal arts institutions that were traditionally anti-film in general and anti-Hollywood in particular, they naturally chose to concentrate on the latter group, with "Easy Rider" aside, films that were dismissed by the target audience and had no appeal to the other segments. Much to the shock of these executives, it was more traditional fare like "Airport" (1970), "What's Up, Doc?" and "The Poseidon Adventure" (both 1972), and "The Sting" (1973), as well as such fare given a "hip" spin like "The French Connection" and "A Clockwork Orange" (both 1971), "The Godfather" (1972), and "The Exorcist" (1973), which brought audiences back into theaters at that time, including a brief renaissance of attendance by the "oldsters."

(Making Peter Biskin's "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" the "official" history of the late Sixties and Seventies has been a source of a lot of the misunderstanding about this period because of its limited pro-arthouse point of view and significant historical, social, and cultural omissions. Biskin, apparently deliberately, ignores the fact that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, whom he specifically blames for ending this period of "open creativity in Hollywood," were successful because they were making films that more people wanted to see than those of HIS preferred subjects. He also completely ignores the impact such genres as blaxploitation and martial arts had on the mainstream audiences of those times, as well as the continuing popularity and influence of horror films both before and after "The Exorcist," among other flaws in his book.)

The combination of the success of "Jaws" and "Star Wars," the absorption of film companies into conglomerates, and the move into executive offices of people with even less connection to what was left of the REGULAR MAINSTREAM MOVIEGOING AUDIENCE would lead to their being patronized with the current production climate of sequels or remakes of films or feature versions of old TV shows from when these executives were young, but which are often obscure to today's teens. Disney executive Nina Jacobson's admission to the L.A. TIMES' Patrick Goldstein that she was intentionally remaking the films she enjoyed as a little girl, such as "Herbie: Fully Loaded" (2005), is not surprising, but is shocking in the apparently serious openness with which she made it.

(The only really valid study of the moviegoing audience that I'm aware of is "American Audiences On Movies And Moviegoing" by UCLA Professor Tom Stempel [University Press of Kentucky, 2001]. Prof. Stempel gave questionnaires to his students as well as sending them to parties of different ages around the country [including this author], but unlike the academics who'd done previous audience studies, like the infamous "Our Movie Made Children" of 1933, which was a factor in the 1934 enforcement of the Production Code, Prof. Stempel had the background in film history and the filmgoing experience to evaluate the results with acceptable validity.

Another rarely tapped source of useful historical perspectives on exhibition and audiences if one is moved to research them are the "The Exhibitor Has His Say" and "What The Picture Did For Me" columns in back issues of BOXOFFICE and MOTION PICTURE HERALD, respectively. The responses in these columns are primarily from independent exhibitors in the Midwest and South and often offer a different point-of-view on their audiences, their tastes, and their reactions to specific films than can be found in most film histories, which are almost always written from a New York/Los Angeles viewpoint.)

The suggestions that Hollywood needs to make more films for adults ignores the fact that the majority of failures over the last forty years have been in the area of DRAMATIC films aimed at adults, who felt most of them weren't worth the time, effort, and money to go out to see for the reasons cited above, as well as the increasing availability of similar fare in TV and later cable movies. In fact, in 1982 Warner Bros. pulled from release a film entitled "Independence Day," about a battered wife triumphing over her abusive husband not interstellar aliens, after learning that its trailers were regularly being hooted with derisive catcalls of "TV movie!" And the failure of "The Insider" (1998) was partially attributed to its similarity to a number of whistle blower expose cable movies that HBO had recently done.

With video now so ingrained in most adult lifestyles, the industry is not going to get the mainstream adult audience back on a regular enough basis for films aimed at them to support exhibition. Most supposedly serious films aimed at this segment involve verbal explication, which makes them indistinguishable from today's censorship free cable movies and play just as well, if not better, on the tube than on the big theater screen. With all due respect, do critics, writers and actors seriously believe that significant numbers of adults outside of the L.A. Westside and its equivalent in other major cities are going to put up with the above described negatives to theatergoing JUST TO HEAR ACTORS TALK?

(Before they're cited as exceptions to the above statements, it should be remembered that "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" was a comedy, and "The Passion Of The Christ" was fueled by a church based marketing campaign that implied attendance was as much a duty for the faithful as attendance at regular church services, the extreme example of a technique that in years past had fueled attendance for "uplifting" films like "One Foot In Heaven" [1941] and "Going My Way" [1944] as well as the silent and sound versions of "Ben-Hur" and "King Of Kings" and "The Sign Of The Cross" [1932] and the 1956 version of "The Ten Commandments.")

Nor is an increase in more arthouse type films likely to help. In the last 15 years, even publications like VARIETY and BOXOFFICE have been having print orgasms over the esoteric offerings at Sundance and similar festivals, even though a few years ago the L.A. TIMES, and a year later VARIETY, admitted that most of the winners at these events that were picked up for theatrical release generally fail to attract audiences in limited arthouse release, with the few given mainstream release having even more disastrous results. That these are usually SMALL, INTIMATE films may have been an asset in past years when they were usually shown in small, intimate theaters, but not when a cheaper, more convenient equivalent is available via home video. Also, the subject matter or approach that attracts the arthouse audience is generally a turnoff to people just seeking an evening's entertainment, a point underscored to me by the complaints of acquaintances who frequently attend free advance word-of-mouth screenings of such films and are usually disappointed by the results and can't understand the critical acclaim the films subsequently get.

One recent example of this involves the project "Murderball," whose failure to attract an audience has been lamented by a number of commentators in spite of its numerous festival prizes and across-the-board critical raves. It should be obvious to anyone with any cognizance of the mainstream audience that a documentary about paraplegics in wheelchairs playing some rough sport would be the longest of long shots in attracting a mainstream audience while the title sends a mixed but negatively skewed message to the currently anti-violence leaning arthouse crowd. Perhaps if the film HAD been the violent action thriller that the title implies, it might have been successful.

Similarly, "Hustle And Flow," a major critical favorite and prizewinner at this year's Sundance Festival, was eclipsed commercially by the surprise sleeper "March Of The Penguins." Perhaps if a film about a pimp who wants to succeed as a rapper had been done as a comedy vehicle for the next Eddie Murphy/Chris Rock wannabe, it may have been successful. Instead, as a Scorcese-eque over-the-top drama, it apparently didn't even attract the black niche audience.

Of course blockbuster/tentpole films have been the most notable victims of the current slump, but again there is an historical perspective that's being overlooked, that every genre tried by the industry over the last 55 years has had a rise and fall cycle that's actually predictable when they're seriously studied. A sleeper success inspires some follow-ups whose success inspires a further spate of follow-ups until the market becomes satiated and the audiences turn to a new genre. This pattern began with "Destination Moon" and "Rocketship X-M" in 1950 and the science-fiction and horror genres have gone through the cycle with the most frequency, but over the last half century Hollywood has tried such genres as juvenile delinquent films, Depression era gangsters, beach party and similar "teenagers just having fun" comedies, biker gangs, blaxploitation, and "chop socky" films, all of which went through the cycle of initial popularity followed by often swift decline.

Action, which encompassed many of these genres as well as westerns and war films, became its own genre as a series of action sequences connected by the thinnest threads of plot, in the wake of the success of the James Bond films in the Sixties, and would take off in a series of increasingly expensive films in the Eighties. Such films were rarely popular with critics, being founded on "deeds, not words," who have gleefully written them off twice over the last 20 years with the failures of several high profile and expensive films at the time, only to see the genre rebound with films that offered a fresh take on the genre, "Die Hard" in 1988 and "Speed" in 1994.

The current genre film dropoff is due to the patronizing attitude of studio decision makers, who really don't like such films but greenlight them only because, despite their costs, when they're successful it looks good to the parent company. Unfortunately they don't understand such films and their attraction to their target audience and over the last couple of decades in particular continually make the wrong decisions in their choice of projects or their development, the most important of which is literally cloning the last big success. In the Fifties-thru-Seventies, the companies specializing in genre films, especially American International, would ascertain the elements which worked to make a particular film successful and rework those into a new context, even going so far as to combine genres like bikers or blaxploitation with horror as in "Werewolves On Wheels" (1971) or "Blacula" (1972). (Source: not only speeches and the autobiography of Samuel Z. Arkoff but personal conversation with former AIP production head Norman T. Herman.)

Of course, there was still a limit to the degree to which this could be done and after a while what might be termed the "familiarity breeds indifference" syndrome would set in. Today, the cloning of mainstream movies brings this syndrome on sooner, especially with trailers and TV spots which, in associating the new film with a previous one, too often imply that it has nothing new to offer. "Stealth" probably suffered from this as well as the recent CGI/videogame approach to action films.

In the good ole photochemical days, teenage boys especially would go back to see films with particularly amazing visual effects shots just to see if they could figure out how they were done. Today, the publicity given CGI has resulted in such shots being offhandedly dismissed even in the rare instances when they're not CGI (and it's amazing how many effects people ignore the obviousness of most such shots.) Also, the cartoon/videogame approach to many such shots actually mitigates against the "suspension of disbelief" that is necessary for real emotional involvement with the film. Spielberg's "War Of The Worlds" works because not only does every effects shot in the film look as if it could plausibly be shot with a camera, but are often staged with the proper magician's trick of casually incorporating the effect in what starts out as a shot without apparent effects.

And current instances of "familiarity breeding indifference" is not just limited to genre films. For instance, in the wake of the success of "Legally Blonde" (2001) and a couple of other economically made "chick flicks" about the career starting and romantic misadventures of some twentysomething females, various companies flooded the market with a rash of similar films whose plot direction could be predicted from the trailers and TV spots, the most recent examples of which got decreasing audience responses.

This is probably why, despite the hype and critical raves, "Cinderella Man" failed to attract an "adult" audience, even with its well publicized rebate. You know how it's going to end, with "Rocky"/"Seabiscuit" triumphant in some way, and emphasizing the "uplifting" theme pretty much tells you how they get there. Plus it's a period picture, a genre not particularly popular in the last 30 years, especially with young people, one set in a period that has also not been particularly popular, except for gangster films. Nor is its underlying subject, boxing, as popular as it was even 25 years ago, especially in today's liberal PC anti-violence of any kind climate.

Although each production/distribution company is no longer releasing two features a week as was the case 90 years ago, locales with more than one first run screen still pretty much have to put in a new film every week. After all, there are sufficient hearty souls who venture into the Sargasso Sea of Lost Films that pop out of Hollywood's primordial ooze between New Year's and the King holiday weekend to justify what little is spent on marketing them. This means that an enormous amount of story material is still being consumed and not all of it can be fresh and original. (Actually evidence from the past suggests that the mainstream audience is less likely to embrace something "fresh and original" than the arthouse audience, though using the familiar as the foundation for going in a new direction has worked, IF the audience has been prepared for it.)

To determine what will or will not work with the wider mainstream audiences, studio decision makers need to develop the kind of instinctive understanding of what those audiences will accept that Zanuck, et. al had in years past. Which can be done to a degree by doing their weekend moviegoing in the further reaches of the San Fernando Valley, the Antelope Valley, the Long Beach area, even Orange County. Or listening to their teenagers, an approach which worked in the mid-Fifties to make American International Pictures successful at a time when RKO and Republic went under and Universal almost did, for, like it or not, even if the current decline in the 15-24 year old audience proves to be permanent, the industry still needs to target at least 50 percent of its annual product toward this group, which is still more likely to go to the theater on a regular basis than older persons.

There is a documented recent instance of the consequences of failing to do this: before its release, "XXX: State Of The Union" was expected to be one of the first blockbusters of the 2005 summer season and distribution executives at Sony couldn't figure out why it failed. A couple of weeks before it opened, the TIMES' Goldstein had followed what has become an annual ritual for him, showing trailers of upcoming summer movies to teenagers in his neighborhood, gauging their reactions, and ranking those reactions according to the kids' desire to see them. "XXX: State Of The Union" got the lowest response.

As for getting back some older adults, one possibility that has not been discussed at all is promising them a UNIQUE FILMWATCHING EXPERIENCE THAT CANNOT BE DUPLICATED IN HOME THEATERS. Contrary to the opinions long expressed by critics and audience-ignorant studio executives, history has repeatedly shown that audiences DO turn out for technological advances that enhance the filmwatching experience, even when initially presented with bad films like "Bwana Devil," which caused a temporary 3-D boom in 1952-54. This includes visual and aural effects which can't be reproduced on video with the same impact as in the theater, such as Sensurround, a low end sound enhancement developed by Universal's Sound Department to gild a stinkweed called "Earthquake" (1974), whose effect cannot be reproduced in the home unless your nearest neighbor lives miles away. I've seen this in the awe of people, young and old, experiencing Cinerama or 70mm presentations for the first time, or the first time in decades, at the Cinerama Dome, the Egyptian, or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

Experiencing a film SPECIFICALLY DESIGNED FOR THIS KIND OF PRESENTATION in even a moderately sized theater is completely different from doing so in a home environment, although this is denied by many video oriented people, especially those with any kind of vested financial interest in home video. Exhibition has never tried to counter the anti theater hype for home video in the Eighties or home video theaters over the last decade and, to a degree are even adopting some aspects of it, such as projecting higher quality anamorphic images reduced and essentially "letterboxed" like video in the center of 1.85:1 screens. It apparently hasn't occurred to exhibitors that making the theatrical experience more home theater-like may actually be counterproductive to their interests.

This also applies to their guarded enthusiasm for Digital Cinema, which many are in favor of as long as somebody else pays for the conversion. Considering that digital sound and Digital Light Processing (DLP) have had home video versions available within six months of their theatrical introduction, every future advance in Digital Cinema is likely to be available in the home soon enough for the technology to have only temporary impact on theatrical attendance.

One area of Digital Cinema which is not likely to have an immediate home version are some new digital projection based 3-D processes recently publicized by author and 3-D enthusiast Ray Zone, one of which can even convert flat films with reportedly better results than from original 3-D photography. Of course a silver screen is still required for this technique, as is the necessity for the audience to wear glasses; there's an immutable law of Physics involved here.

There are also already existing technologies which can be used with little or no additional cost to either exhibition or production, such as true W-I-D-E screen. Especially with High-Definition and "Wide Screen" television fixed at 16:9, or 1.77:1, and a ratio wider than 2.00:1 aesthetically impractical for most home theater situations. As 16mm and Super8 film collectors know, when it's possible to project an image to a height of 3-1/2 ft. or greater, the ultrawide anamorphic 2.66:1 image resulting from the 2x squeeze used in professional anamorphic prints can be quite satisfying. However, in most home situations, it's necessary to reduce the OVERALL SIZE of the picture to fit that WIDTH onto standard 6x6' or smaller screens, resulting in an abnormal looking mail slot image.

For the theater ratios of between 2.2:1 and 2.75:1 are easily achievable with existing 35mm and 65/70mm cameras and projectors. And a process like Robert Weisgerber's Super Dimension 70, 65mm photography at 48 fps, suggests even greater possibilities. (Weisgerber has even designed a complete projection system that can easily be installed in the booth of most theaters.) Of course this requires that the films be staged and composed to take advantage of these ratios, a rarity today even for anamorphic films, but quite common in those from the mid Fifties to the late Sixties, which is why such films, even "intimate" black-and-white ones like "The Apartment" (1960) and "In Cold Blood" (1967), look so great on the big screens of the Academy and American Cinematheque's two L.A. venues, among others, and why even knowledgeable film buffs with high end home video systems and these films on DVD still turn out to see them when they're shown in such venues, especially 70mm prints of films originally shot in 65mm.

Hyping such presentations, especially with a film that delivers the goods, has proven to be a strong, and often sustained, audience draw in the past. This was inadvertently acknowledged by Warner Bros. in 2000 in its initial ad campaign for "The Perfect Storm," which played up not the film's stars as is normally the case, but the concept of the storm itself and the idea that it was something best experienced in a theater with a big screen and good sound system. One really ironic result of this was "The Perfect Storm's" perfectly blowing away the film expected to be that week's boxoffice champ, "The Patriot," directed by Roland Emmerich, as the "Storm" campaign had no doubt been inspired by the successful similar campaigns for his earlier "Independence Day" (1996) and "Godzilla" (1998).

Where does Imax fit into this? I'm one of the few people who've never been impressed by that format, being more aware of the unnatural amount of space at the top of the image as well as the equally unnatural image cutoff on the sides. While I found its use for the opening "King Kong" homage in Ben Burttıs "Special Effects" (1996) to be effective, I don't feel it really lends itself to the varying image sizes needed to properly tell a story on film. As cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC recently commented, close-ups in Imax are unnaturally grotesque. I've found it interesting that for conversions from contemporary films, they've chosen to essentially "letterbox" them within the Imax frame, even rendering the recent "Batman Begins" at its full 2.40:1 anamorphic ratio. I've never been intrigued enough to pay to see any of these conversions and some tests I saw at the Imax production facility in Santa Monica didn't change my opinion, though a significant number of people have been drawn by the hype for it as they have for digital projection.

Unfortunately, given the studios' ambivalent attitude toward theatrical exhibition, it may actually be necessary for the exhibition side to produce and possibly distribute at least the first such film designed for this kind of presentation. There is precedence for this: United Artists Theaters was a major investor in Todd-AO and CineMiracle, a rival to Cinerama, was developed by National Theaters. And there was post-Divorce Decree exhibition involvement in distribution, such as southern theater owner Joy Houck's Howco International, which financed and distributed a number of Hollywood shot B quickies in the late Fifties and had its greatest success with "Thunder In Carolina" (1960), one of the first, if not the first films about dirt track racing, a popular pastime in the South and Southwest where the film was a summer drive-in perennial for the next decade.

The most successful and more mainstream exhibition involvement in distribution was Pacific Theaters' William Forman formation of Cinerama Releasing in 1968; five years earlier Forman had purchased the Cinerama Corp. and all rights to that process. Thanks to getting distribution rights to ABC's second venture into theatrical production (they'd earlier financed the infamous "giant locusts that devoured Chicago" film "Beginning Of The End" (1957), Cinerama handled such high profile titles as "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" (1969) and "Straw Dogs" (1971) while a contract with Bing Crosby Productions brought them moderately budgeted genre hits like "Willard" (1971), its sequel "Ben" (1972), and "Walking Tall" (1973). Cinerama and ABC had co-produced "Krakatoa East Of Java" (1969), the last film advertised as being roadshown "in Cinerama" in the United States, though it was actually shot in nonanamorphic 65mm. Unfortunately this film not only was not shot in such a way as to really exploit the audience involvement aspects of the old three panel process (of the non three panel films "presented in Cineram," only the 65mm Ultra Panavision "Battle Of The Bulge" [1965], the Super Panavision "Grand Prix" [1966], and reportedly the Technirama shot "Custer Of The West" (1967) appear to have attempted this to any degree; the last film, which I've never seen, wasn't even shown in 70mm in L.A.) A contemporary film of this type, with the goal of offering the audience an experience that could never be reproduced by home video, would definitely have to be approached this way, which means it cannot be done on the ultra cheap. But if approached adroitly, it could be made efficiently and economically even here in the United States.

Motion pictures, especially theatrical motion pictures, are the most expensive form of artistic expression developed to date, and even if a serious effort were made to reign in production costs, the continued success of the industry is dependent on bringing in enough patrons on a regular basis to at least break even. Thus, targeting specific small audiences, a tactic that works in the legitimate theater, especially small and waiver ones which have lower overheads, is not going to work even for arthouse films. With most adults who are not in the industry having gotten out of the regular moviegoing habit long ago, and younger people increasingly getting out of it, the big question about theatrical exhibition is how much longer will it remain viable. It's not just what's on the screen, but the satisfactions obtained from experiencing it in the special unique venue of the theater rather than in the home that's likely to extend its life. And, it appears that will depend more on the efforts of exhibitors than of filmmakers, especially where the mainstream audience is concerned.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

İ 2005 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

IMAGES: William Kallay (Vogue Theatre, Bob Iger, ArcLight Cinemas; Cinerama Dome); Warner Bros. Home Entertainment; Apple Computer; Icon Distribution / New Market Films; Paramount Classics; Super Vista Corporation; Marty Hart (




Copyright 2005 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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