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Posted November 28, 2006



By Rick Mitchell

I again preface this by stating that my interest is in the preservation of the theatrical moviegoing experience for as long as possible. Video is irrelevant to this discussion except as success in that medium is still predicated on a film’s theatrical success. But film production and distribution companies still treat theatrical release as a $30,000,000 promotion for the DVD, leaving exhibitors to deal with the problems of getting enough people in to meet their weekly overheads on their own.

Because 2006 turned out to be slightly better boxoffice-wise than 2005, the industry has apparently put off dealing with the issues brought out in discussions about last year’s decline in attendance, especially among the 30-50 year old demographic, and particularly the reasons for that decline that were emphasized in interviews and letters to editors from the general public. And yet, an incident occurred two months ago that suggests there are still reasons for concern: the surprising failure of “All The King’s Men.”

Not that this film was expected to be a boxoffice bonanza, but over the last five years, films with its profile and release pattern have usually opened at between $10 and $20,000,000; “King’s” opened at only $3,500.000! Now, this failure may have been due to specific reasons related to the film itself, which I’ll get into later, but, in light of things brought out last year, it has ominous portentions regarding the future regular attendance of the over 30-year-old segment of the audience that really need to be considered now in making future production choices.

“King’s” was supposed to kick off the Fall “serious, adult” film season. As I pointed out last year, this segment of the audience is normally defined monolithically, but discussion of it is actually limited to liberal arts college-educated persons generally reflective of the backgrounds of most studio executives, producers, and critics. And the actual commercial importance of this segment of the audience has been blown out of proportion by the emphasis on arthouse/festival films which supposedly are especially appealing to them over the last 15 years, even by previously traditionally oriented publications like Variety and Boxoffice. Yet, though vocal members of this audience claim to want more “serious adult” films, when such films are made, they rarely show up in theaters in sufficient numbers to justify the film’s distribution, much less production, costs. Why? It was put best by the author of a letter to the Los Angeles Times in response to the only story I’ve seen so far on the “King’s” affair:

THE film’s failure should not be a surprise to [director Steve] Zaillian. Audiences are now going out to movie theaters to see four distinct genres: event blockbusters (based on comic books, video games, etc), family film, horror pictures, and broad comedies. TV has now become the premiere platform for adult dramas. [Emphasis mine] The sooner the people who made “All The King’s Men,” “Hollywoodland” and “The Black Dahlia” learn this, the better it will be for everyone, especially the people who foot the bill. It is a youth market. [Again emphasis mine] What was considered lowbrow in the ’70s and ’80s is now what is keeping the studios alive. Look at what happened to this summer’s “adult drama” version of “Miami Vice.” Universal could have had a smash hit and a big franchise had it made the youth friendly/action version and booted MichaeI Mann.

Peter Rogers

It is a youth market, and really has been for the last sixty years. As I pointed out last year, the loss in the 30-60 demographic began back then because adults in this age group had demands on their free time that weren’t as prominent during the Depression and World War II: starting families, advancing careers, and in 1947, going to college to a higher degree than at any time previously. TV was not as big an initial factor as often claimed; it’s constantly forgotten that there weren’t that many stations broadcasting in 1947 and only the really affluent, like people in the upper echelons of the industry, could afford sets. TV did become an increasing alternative to theatrical moviegoing for them through the Fifties and the increased availability on TV of new theatrical releases after 1960, from a delay of five years down to as little as three months today, reduced the inducement to see films in a theater. Plus, the targeted portion of this particular demographic also has the money for high end home theater setups, and find staying at home and using them preferable to the negatives to theatergoing most frequently cited last year: parking hassles, long lines at ticket windows and concession stands, and obnoxious audiences.

There was a precipitous decline in what was left of the post-World War II “adult” audience after 1965, though it had a brief renaissance in 1972-73. Now the “boomers” who then sustained the theatrical industry are drifting away. Given that the subject matter of most “adult” films is of little interest even to those in their early Twenties, if “boomers” are preferring their home theaters to multiplexes in greater numbers today than over the last five years, production executives need to start seriously considering the advisability of making films for theatrical release which have no appeal to the 15-24 year old audience; the current hit “The Departed” is an example of a film that does appeal to both demographics. And, as has been proven so often of late, “stars” mean nothing, neither do reviews, or even Oscars when it comes to that home vs. theater decision among those over 30. DVD and home theater are now so ingrained into their sensibility that it takes a really special combination of elements to get them into theaters even during those periods of the year in which they’ve been proven likely to go in the past: late July and August, Thanksgiving weekend, and the week between Christmas and New Years.

At the same time, it’s worth noting that there is nothing about most of these “adult” films, except maybe for comedies, that really demands their being seen in a theater. Mostly dialog driven, they play just as well, if not better on the tube, especially contemporary films done almost entirely in tight long lens close-ups with nothing really to look at but often unattractive faces.

As I write this, the only other current film with a comparable audience profile to that of “All The King’s Men” is “Flags Of Our Fathers,” possibly the year’s best film, but also doing what is considered poor business. There are those who say this is typical of Eastwood’s films, both “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” started off slow and built gradually, but neither of those films had the advance expectations of “Flags."

Both films do have the problem of being period pictures, “King’s” in particular set in a period that has never been particularly popular, the decade right after the end of World War II. “The Black Dahlia” also has this problem as well as being a story more of interest in L.A. than the rest of the country, despite the success of the book; remember you’re talking about two different segments of popular culture.

“King’s” also suffers from the miscasting of Sean Penn. The repercussions of his politics aside, only in the culturally clueless executive suites of contemporary Hollywood would a lightweight like Penn be seriously considered for the role of a stereotypically tough loud populist mid-20th Century Southern politician. Matthew McConaughy maybe today; Gene Hackman, Kris Kristofferson, or Burt Reynolds thirty years ago, but Sean Penn? Of course, in the film he makes it work, thanks to first being seen as the innocent lamb who discovers he’s being led to a political slaughter just in time to turn the tables. But this transition is not included in the film’s trailers and media spots and heard out of context, Penn’s whiney rantings in that Senator Claghorn accent could have been a turnoff to potential moviegoers who weren’t bothered by his politics. It is tragic when audiences typecast performers and won’t readily accept them doing something different, but the effect of audience perception of a particular performer does need to be considered in casting decisions, especially in films aimed at older audiences who are often more performer conscious.

Do I have suggestions for a solution? The same one I made last year: rather than trying to make the theatrical moviegoing experience more home theater-like, do the opposite and promise a unique experience that cannot be duplicated in the home. Things look promising, now that exhibitors seem to have finally gotten out of the shoebox mini-theater mindset. But “letterboxing” 2.40:1 images within a screen set up for 1.85:1, comparable to the approach taken in video, is not the way to go here.

And there needs to be serious consideration of the end result from the production end. A friend of mine is an exponent of what he calls “experiential cinema,” that is using the technical resources of the film medium, wide screen, stereophonic sound, even 3-D, to create that unique theatrical moviegoing experience. This was done regularly in the silent days, especially in big city movie palaces in the Twenties. In fact, according to historian Robert Gitt, the Warner Bros. and William Fox’s interest in sound was not in “talking pictures” but in bringing the full orchestra played musical scores and sound effects normally used in those palaces to smaller houses in less culturally affluent areas of the country. The introduction of the “Talkies” did decrease interest in some of these gimmicks for about 25 years, but they underwent a major revival, with a fair amount of commercial success, between 1952 and 1970.

Ironically, what killed serious interest in this aspect of film viewing was the increased interest in film of academic institutions and the equally increasing influence of critics, all of whom looked down their noses at the “Barnum & Bailey” aspects of Hollywood. To them, “cinema” should just be a bastardized form of stage drama. This attitude is still found today in the gushing reviews of “serious adult” films which have orgasms over essentially the recording of actors delivering dialog with no consideration, or apparent awareness, of the role production design, cinematography, picture and sound editing, music, and re-recording have had on the end result and could have had to a greater degree if the filmmakers were as aware of their potential as Hitchcock, Ford, Stevens, Wilder, etc. were, and only Eastwood and Scorcese of today’s regularly working directors seem to be. Both “The Departed” and “Flags Of Our Fathers” play beautifully on big wide screens the way even wide screen B films from the Fifties and Sixties still do but most contemporary megabuck attempts at epics don’t.

“Experiential Cinema” will require a different mindset than that held by most contemporary filmmakers. Even before the wide screen era, films, even Bs were shot with the idea of being seen on big screens. Today, filmmakers shooting on film rarely see a print on even a medium sized screen until they see the answer print. Plus, the majority of these filmmakers are from a small screen video background and are used to watching scenes as they’re shot on a video monitor. Few of them have a “big screen eye.” Angeleno film buffs of my acquaintance with the latest home theater systems still turn out for local revivals of Cinerama and 70mm films from the Fifties and Sixties because, as they admit, their home systems cannot compete with the presentation of these films on the screens of the Cinerama Dome, LACMA, or the Academy or American Cinematheque’s theaters.

Unfortunately few contemporary moviegoers have seen such presentations, although those who’ve taken the opportunity to do so are impressed, but generally they have no problem accepting such underwhelming contemporary attempts as the “Pirates Of The Caribbean” films, “Superman Returns” (for which 65mm was originally considered!), or the Peter Jackson version of “King Kong.” Equally unfortunately, the industry’s executive maroons are more likely to hand an exploratory 65mm or serious 3-D project over to the likes of Michael Bay, Rob Cohen, or Renny Harlin, who should never even be let near even a home video camera, rather than say, John Carpenter, Wes Craven, Joe Dante, or Richard Donner (diplomatically billed alphabetically), who’ve proven they can deliver the goods on such a project, especially when allowed creative freedom, and with the first three, economically, too; Steven Soderbergh and Robert Rodriguez, who¹s already proven his ability with 3-D, would also likely do something interesting if offbeat.

Of course, every film can’t be an exercise in Experiential Cinema, probably not even one every month. It should be recalled that what ultimately killed the roadshow era of the Sixties was a surfeit of such films, eight in 1965 for example, plus the inflating to roadshow status of films like “Ice Station Zebra” and “MacKenna’s Gold” that really weren’t “unique and special” in the manner of the standard-setters like “Around The World In Eighty Days,” “The Ten Commandments,” “Ben-Hur,” “Lawrence Of Arabia,” and “The Sound Of Music.” The first experiential film subject needs to be seriously considered in light of the tastes of the 15-24 demographic as well as older audiences, lest the mistake made in the Nineties with “Far And Away” and “Hamlet” be repeated. (Even with the quality of CGI effects being debatable, “Speed,” “Independence Day,” or “Titanic” would have been better choices for a revival of 65mm production.)

Where does Imax fit into this? In my opinion, nowhere. Admittedly, I’m one of the few people who’ve never been impressed by Imax, considering it another verification of Barnum’s famous dictum. Aside from the technical problems of original dramatic production in 15 perf. Imax, the size and shape of the image really does not lend itself to the cinematic narrative techniques that have evolved over the last hundred years, and most audiences would find an Imax film done in today’s tight closeup long lens style to be unwatchable, especially if also shot primarily with a handheld camera. It has always amused me that the dramatic films repurposed for Imax have been matted down to a rectangular shape, including the anamorphic “Batman Begins” and “Superman Returns” rendered at 2.40:1, which is the antithesis of the idea of Imax

And it would be a mistake to reduce the number of films released annually, as some, especially critics, have suggested. Depending on his share of the local market, an exhibitor needs to put something new on his screen every two weeks at the minimum, every week in a multiscreen situation. He has to consider not only the potential patron who may not want or is unable to attend the first week, but the one who did and may not want to see it again the next week. And the bulk of these films have to primarily appeal to that 15-24 year old demographic because, even though their attendance figures are also declining, they are still more likely to go to theaters than older people. This doesn't necessarily mean an annual indundation of “Jackasses” and “Saws.” The surprisingly success of the very cerebral “The Prestige” suggests that there is hope for carefully considered but non-patronizing intelligent fare aimed at this group.

And, given the complaints about high prices last year, which industry types naturally ignored, the consequences of the recently announced plan to charge $25 for “Dreamgirls” in its exclusive run at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles, the Ziegfeld in New York and the Metreon in San Francisco probably should be seriously thought out. It may be a “toe-in-the-water” test of the revival of roadshow-type production and presentation, of which Steven Spielberg was a fan, and for which a price increase may be necessary for the implementation of certain experiential cinema technologies, but it will only work if audiences feel the film and the technology are worth the additional cost, as they did in the early days of roadshowing in the Fifties. Though locally, the ArcLight, Bridge, El Capitan, and Grove appear to have been successful with such aspects of roadshowing as higher prices and reserved seats, the regular audience at these theaters are exclusively well-heeled Westside trendoids, less affluent film buffs who live near them being unable to afford to attend on even a regular basis, and I have not heard of such techniques succeeding or even being tried in other parts of town or the country, with the possible exception of equally trendy Manhattan.

There is really nothing about “Dreamgirls” or its presentation to make the higher price seem worth it to the majority of potential moviegoers. On the surface it appears to be nothing more than a megabuck remake of “Sparkle” (1976). Yes, the show has name recognition. So did “The Wiz,” “The Phantom Of The Opera,” and “Rent.” Most theater fans consider film versions to be inferior to stage versions, especially of musicals. And there is a generation gap issue here, even with black audiences. But, like the public embrace of repurposed films in Imax, the hype equating a higher admission price with something special, even if it really isn’t, may be enough to get a sufficient number of trendoids in to allow Paramount and Dreamworks to claim the price increase was a success and they or other distributors to try it with another film, probably a $300 mil+ presumed sure thing that turns out not to be.

The future of theatrical filmgoing is more in the hands of the boards of directors of the conglomerates who own the production and distribution companies than the general public. Once they release a major film on DVD concurrent with its theatrical release, as they inevitably will, the handwriting will be on the wall, even if it’s a properly done example of experiential cinema whose effects cannot be duplicated in the home. Until then, there is still hope, if filmmakers and distributors can be gotten to seriously consider the needs of the entire theatrical market, not just a fashionable segment, on its own and not as a subadjunct to video.

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

© 2006 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved.

IMAGES: © William Kallay; Sony Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures/DreamWorks Pictures; Warner Bros. Pictures; DreamWorks Pictures/Paramount Pictures.  All rights reserved.




Copyright 2004-2006 From Script To DVD.  All rights reserved.


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