(Excerpted from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter, July 2015)
Ah, summer, the season of superheroes, sequels, and franchise tentpoles. Actually, this is getting to be the norm coming out of Hollywood year round. It seems nearly every movie is a sequel or the hopeful launch of a new franchise or a spin-off from another franchise. Lets look at why, and start with the obvious fact that what these tentpole franchises may lack in originality, they make up for in profitability, especially when considering the merchandising.
Disney is the master of this game, recognizing early on the importance of owning brands and intellectual property. They bought Pixar, then Marvel, and more recently, they’ve acquired the granddaddy of all franchises, Star Wars. While the jury is still out on the Star Wars investment, it will likely be another huge score for the “House of Mouse,” as the Marvel acquisition has once again proven this last weekend with the highest grossing movie, Ant-Man.
Now more than half way through 2015, the top four movies so far this year, are all born of a franchise: 1) Jurassic World, 2) Furious 7, 3) Avengers: Age of Ultron, and 4) Minions. So you can bet you’ll be seeing more, and more, and more of the same to come. Although they’re expensive to produce, averaging roughly $200 million each, they are a good bet with predictable returns domestically, and ever more importantly, internationally.
This kind of movie rarely garners critical praise and fewer people around my neck of the woods are going out to see them, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Despite the fact that domestic ticket sales are actually down, International revenues are higher than ever, and continue to grow. Even pictures that do poorly here in the U.S. are usually moneymakers in overseas markets. However, subtle human dramas or intelligent comedies do not translate too well to foreign theatrical audiences who seem instead to relish lots of action sequences with everything portrayed in epic proportion.
You can argue about whether it is due to the lack of quality content, the cost of going out to the movies, or the fact that the home theater experience is improving to the point that consumers are happy to sit and watch at home, but people around here are just not going to the movies as often as they used to. According to the Hollywood Reporter, well over a billion movie tickets were purchased in North America in 2014, and while that might sound like a lot, it is actually the lowest attendance since 1995, the year “Toy Story” came out.
However, even as ticket sales declined, the metric Hollywood likes to brag about: “box office,” until very recently has still been enjoying a steady increase over the years as ticket prices have risen. Some of the price increase is due to the natural forces of inflation, but to an even greater extent, such premiums as 3D and IMAX have helped the studios to grow revenue and profits even as attendance has declined.
However, recent trends show that not only is attendance down, but domestic revenue is also starting to decline. Could it be that increasing ticket and concession prices are finally starting to kill the goose that laid the golden egg? I know from my own consumer experience that when I take the family out to the movies, I can drop $80 to $100 in the blink of an eye. Although I do enjoy going for the theatrical experience, I have to admit that a growing amount of the content I view is from the comfort of my home.
There is, however, one kind of movie that doesn’t play so well in the home, and may justify the expense of paying for a premium theater going experience including 3D, enhanced sound, and a good size screen. It’s the big, epic kind of productions that are usually the tentpole franchises I am so tired of.
These large scale productions are the kind of movies that can still reliably get butts of all ages into theater seats, and especially considering the revenue boosting premiums like 3D, are still profitable for the studios. Such large investments on the part of the studios, together with the likelihood of profitability, justify the expense of large scale advertising campaigns. The result is that these movies are heavily promoted, which tends to perpetuate the cycle and crowd out smaller pictures.
It is not a lack of content that keeps smaller Independent features off the big screen. With the so called democratization of filmmaking, anybody can now make a movie. Tangerine, a movie shot on the iPhone is currently in theatrical release after having first screened at the Sundance Film Festival. What is perhaps most noteworthy is not the camera that was used, but the fact that a feature of such limited means actually makes it to the big screen; it is very rare. With the technology becoming so accessible, many productions fly under the radar, and it is difficult to know how many Independent Features are actually produced every year. We do know that very few of them ever get widely distributed, and even fewer get a theatrical release.
When the studios can make a reliable profit with business as usual, what motivation do they have to take a chance on something new? It is much easier and safer to market a known quantity, and if they’re not going to invest in the promotion to make audiences aware of a new project, who will pay to go out and see it? The Studios function as businesses, answerable to their investors, rather than patrons of the arts. Or, as the old saying reminds us, “There’s a reason they call it Show Business”.
There will always be a small number of low budget moneymakers like horror movies and raunchy comedies that make it to the silver screen. And come December, we can count on a precious few gems coming out in time for Oscar consideration. So sit back and get used to it; we can expect only more of the same at the movies. What we are offered will be driven by the tastes of those in far off lands with very different cultures, by an industry with an extreme aversion to risk.
Thankfully, original television programming has stepped in to partially fill the void. Shows like House of Cards,True Detective, and Boardwalk Empire have been able to attract topflight talent, both in front and behind the lens. And programs like Game of Thrones are able to tell interesting stories for the small screen, while maintaining all the production value of a big budget feature.
Meanwhile the traditional 90 day “Theatrical Window” is being challenged and may disappear. Viewers may soon be able to see the same content in their living room that is opening in theaters. Paramount Pictures, in partnership with AMC Theaters and Cineplex, is currently experimenting with new distribution patterns and will release two upcoming features to home video only 17 days after they leave theaters.
The Studios want to strike while the iron is hot and since the vast majority of revenue comes within the first few weeks of a film’s release, they believe that holding back the home video release fails to capitalize on the demand. Theater owners, on the other hand, have been fearful that shorter windows would hurt ticket sales. So, in this case, Paramount is sweetening the deal by offering the Exhibitors a portion of the revenue from iTunes and other online outlets for the first 90 days of the release.
Top notch content is now available on-demand in the home where the viewing experience continues to improve. The adoption of technology, such as higher resolution displays of ever-increasing dimensions, is shortening the gap between the home and theater experience, and may threaten the movie going paradigm.
Much like prehistoric man must have shared stories sitting around the fire staring at the flickering light, I am drawn to the ritual of going out to the movies, sitting in a darkened room with a group of likeminded strangers, and taking in a well told story. Perhaps it is in our DNA, but I hope that there will be some human stories offered, and Hollywood will realize that not every movie needs to be an effects laden thrill ride before all theatrical exhibition goes the way of the drive-in movie. Hopefully, I’ll continue to see you at the movies.