Where’s the Audience?

Audiences are fleeing the movie theaters... but is this necessarily a bad thing? 

Audiences are fleeing the movie theaters… but is this necessarily a bad thing?

I have a confession to make. Every week, I visit Box Office Mojo, a website that predicts and then chronicles the box office earnings of the movies that have just been released. It never ceases to amaze me how accurately analysts can predict a film’s opening gross in the days (and sometimes weeks) before it is released. Similarly afflicted victims of my compulsion usually follow the B.O. numbers to keep score, like it’s a horse race and they’re rooting for their particular thoroughbred; but I do it for a different reason.

I’m well aware that box office earnings are just NOT comparable. The all-time chart for highest grossing films changes practically every year; currently, six of the top ten highest grossing domestic films have been released in the past ten years, and if you don’t count films that have been re-released in more recent years to add to their total box office earnings (Titanic, Star Wars, ET), then the entire top ten list is comprised of films from the 2000s.

At first glance, you might infer that movies are just more popular and lucrative now than ever before. But actually, theater attendance is declining. It’s the cost of the movie tickets that’s increasing, and the price is increasing fast enough that a movie released five or ten years ago that actually sold more tickets might have grossed less money overall than a movie released this year. For instance, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier is currently number 78 on the all-time highest grossing films list with a total of $255 Million; by contrast 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand is number 98 on that same list with $234 Million. But, The Last Stand sold an estimated three million tickets more than Captain America!

Now consider trying to compare a 2014 movie to a film released in the 40s or 50s, the 60s or 70s and you get the gist of how deceptive those numbers can be. Adjusted for inflation, Titanic is the only movie released in the past thirty years that has made it to the top ten. But then to be fair, movies don’t stick around in theaters as long as they used to; a movie would be in theaters for multiple years back in the good old days, but in 2014, a film has already hit DVD and Blu-Ray within three or four months of its theatrical release.

The Wolf of Wall Street: hit theaters on December 25, 2013. Hit DVD on March 25, 2014.

The Wolf of Wall Street: hit theaters on December 25, 2013. Hit DVD on March 25, 2014.

So yeah, like I said, NOT comparable. The numbers are pretty much useless as any kind of a gauge for popularity or success. What they do tell us, however, and the reason that I continue to obsessively check them, is week-to-week, month-to-month, where the trend of moviegoing attendance is headed.

And the way that trend is headed recently has got to be dispiriting for movie theater owners and film studios. In the month of May, five blockbusters films hit theaters: Amazing Spider-Man 2, Neighbors, Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past and Maleficent, and while Spider-Man, Godzilla, and X-Men all debuted with massive hauls in the vicinity of $90M, the second weekend saw them dropping to around $30M-$35M. Third weekends for both Spider-Man and Godzilla have been nearly as bad, with only $12M-$17M hauls, and X-Men is likely to suffer a similar fate this coming weekend.

Of these big films, Neighbors actually had the smallest first weekend to second weekend drop of the month, debuting at $49M and dropping to $25M the following weekend, then $14M, then $8M. But it’s kind of sad that a movie losing only half its audience in the second weekend is considered to be the most resilient, isn’t it?

So, what does all this actually tell us? For one thing, it appears that just about everyone who wants to see a big budget blockbuster sees it as soon as it comes out. While this suggests a rabid, excited fanbase for these films, it doesn’t bode well as an indicator of interest for more casual, mainstream audiences who usually wait a week or two before going to the theater. While $90M looks impressive for a first weekend performance, it’s considerably less impressive when you consider how significant a percentage it comprises of the final, total haul.

These numbers and patterns also suggest that these films aren’t getting much in the way of repeat business, and they’re certainly not lasting in the pop cultural consciousness the way films of their ilk even five or ten years ago did. The truly successful films are the ones where people end up going two or three times and then dragging along friends and family for repeat viewings.

But these particular films were pretty disposable entertainment; people saw it once, figured that was good enough, and then turned their attentions to what was coming up next week. Considering how long it takes to make any movie, all the thought and passion and hard work that is involved, not to mention all the money spent, it’s rather dispiriting to think that any movie, no matter how crass and commercial, would be so disposable as to be completely forgotten in its second or third week at the theater.

Is it that the films aren’t satisfying enough for repeat viewings? Or is it that ticket prices are too high? Or that the theater experience kind of sucks? Or do people just have so many options for entertainment, they don’t feel the need to watch a movie in the theater a second time?

Or could it have something to do with the fact that the special edition Blu-Ray sets for Amazing Spider-Man 2 and X-Men: Days of Future Past are already being advertised mere days after the movie has hit theaters?

Is it just me or is this seriously creepy?

Is it just me or is this seriously creepy?

All of the above, if you ask me.

While people have been complaining about the cost of movie tickets, the crappy theater experience, and the glut of blockbuster special effect laden extravaganzas on the screen since at least the seventies, that hasn’t stopped them from flocking to the movie theater. But in the last twenty or so years, a combination of factors has occurred that might have irreparably damaged the cinema-going habit in our society.

I don’t personally know of many people who still go out to the movies. I have a couple friends that always check out the latest superhero flicks on the big screen. I have another friend who will infrequently check out an indie flick at a theater where they serve beer and food. My family makes it to the theater maybe once every six months. Practically everyone else I know waits until a movie hits home video, or just don’t watch movies at all, preferring television or the Internet to satiate their media hunger.

For my part, I’ve pretty much kicked the movie theater habit in the past year or so, after a particularly obnoxious experience in a theater where the guy sitting next to me was snoring during the film. Was I watching a three hour long art film, something really boring and pretentious, you ask? No, I was watching the James Bond movie, Skyfall. After that experience, I swore I’d find another way to enjoy my cinematic experience outside the theater.

My solution isn’t one that will work for everybody, but after a surprisingly modest investment in a home theater system, I have a place in the comfort of my own home where I can enjoy films in all their epic glory, overwhelming imagery and immersive soundscapes included at no extra charge… and no one snoring, unless it’s my wife.

I have been asked, however, whether I miss the theater-going experience. Surely there is something worthwhile about seeing a film with an audience, of having that room of people, that communal experience and being witness to people’s raw emotions as epic storytelling unfolds on a massive screen. It’s been compared with going to a sporting event vs. watching it at home on the television.

But I don’t think it’s a fair comparison.

What does an audience grant a movie? At worst, an audience can ruin a filmgoing experience. Anything from the extreme of noisy, rude people talking all the way through a movie to the relatively benign offense of someone laughing at something you don’t find funny or quietly trying to move past you to run to the bathroom pulls you out of whatever you’re watching. Some people argue that the cinema experience is about the fully immersive sensation of being whisked away from reality into the world of the film, but whenever you’re sharing a theater with other people, you’re going to be reminded of it.

Why would you spend $15 to talk on the phone and annoy everyone around you?

Why would you spend $15 to talk on the phone and annoy everyone around you?

At best, an audience is attuned to your own emotions as you watch a film and that communal sense of sharing either joy, humor, horror, suspense or melancholy enhances your appreciation for a particular film. Sometimes, an audience’s emotion carries you through something you might otherwise not find as affecting. But more often that not, the best thing an audience can be is quiet and unobtrusive. Actors in a film can’t pause for laughter before delivering their next line like an actor in a play or musical can. Your cheering for the heroes isn’t going to energize and excite the characters in the film like it might help your team’s morale at a sporting event. A film doesn’t need an audience to exist and films can still be appreciated and enjoyed without an entire room full of people surrounding you.

If the days of movie theater dominance are already in the past, I don’t think it’s necessarily the doomsday scenario that many fret over. Movies will still continue to be made, and they will still continue to make money, albeit it in different ways and perhaps not as profitably. There will still be some movie theaters, and those theaters will have to learn how to adapt to the changing marketplace, to offer an experience that is unique, convenient, and more pleasurable than the model that currently exists.

Back in the old days, people didn’t have any options. If you wanted to see moving images and sound manipulated into a compelling narrative, you had to go to the movie theater. There wasn’t anything else like it. The radio and the stage were the closest competition and they offered completely unique and separate experiences. When television came along, it hurt movies for a long time, and so film studios devised CinemaScope and 3D as a way of getting people to come back to the theater. Ultimately, it was films like Jaws, Star Wars and The Godfather that brought audiences back to the movie theater. You couldn’t see anything like those films on your television; and you couldn’t just wait for the home video release, because that didn’t exist yet!

Nowadays, there are no limits on our appetite for film. We can stream movies online, rent them for a little over a buck while buying dinner at the grocery store. We can own high-definition Blu-Rays for the cost of a ticket at a multiplex and view them as often as we feel like on massive television screens with above average speakers encircling us. We can also decide that television shows like Breaking Bad, True Detective, House of Cards, American Horror Story and Game of Thrones provide us with a far superior and more rewarding experience than that fifth Spider-Man movie to be released over the course of twelve years.

The movie theater is headed the way of the bookstore, no matter how many technological gimmicks the movie studios devise for the purpose of adding surcharges to our tickets and no matter how insane the CG special effects are in the latest blockbuster flavor of the week. While past generations will lament the death of the movie theater, new generations will shrug in ambivalence while watching the latest flick on their iPhone on the way to work. And videophiles and audiophiles will be too busy adjusting their receivers and projectors to notice when their local multiplex shuts their doors. There are still plenty of other experiences we as a society can participate in communally. Sports, theater, drinking, dining, dancing, stand-up comedy, games and competitions. But movies…?

I’d rather stay home.

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3 thoughts on “Where’s the Audience?

  1. Good points. I think it is mostly because of the prices increasing. Plus I am a TV person.

    PS. I don’t snore. 😉

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