The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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November 2, 2012

Benji Tunnell: Hollywood giving its business away to VOD

JOPLIN, Mo. — This past weekend saw another disappointing turnout at the box office. A three-week-old drama moved into first place, a $100 million film from the creators of “The Matrix” barely registered, and the fourth installment of a played out horror franchise saw its grosses drop 70 percent from the previous weekend.

While some might look at this as the exception, it is more of a reflection of ever decreasing movie attendance in an increasingly competitive entertainment environment.

Not too long ago, movies were a prime distraction for many Americans. Then came the advent of the Internet, and with it Netflix and iTunes. That was followed by the death of the video rental store, the launch of Redbox and myriad other distractions.

Rather than adapting and changing with the times, movie theaters maintained the status quo, losing attendance but raising admissions, slapping on 3-D surcharges and cutting payroll costs to maintain the level of profitability they were used to.

Studios continued to pump out multiple new releases every weekend, taking as many screens as possible to be able to soak up every available dollar during the most profitable first week of release. Then the product would be cycled to smaller screens and then out the door to make room for the next wave of disposable films. So, though attendance may have started to dwindle, it wasn’t reflected in the bottom line for either the studios or the theater chains.

This led to a domino effect of problems.

Studios pushed to decrease the window between theatrical release and home video distribution to maximize their profits and reduce the impact of piracy. Theaters opened movies on multiple screens, saturating the market and decreasing demand for later weeks when they are able to keep a higher percentage of the grosses.

To make up for this lost revenue, ticket prices were increased, concessions were marked up to even more unreasonable levels, 3-D charges were jacked up, and the moviegoer was left to foot the bill for a mediocre product.

Because of this new release structure, movies aren’t given the time to breathe and find an audience.

Gone are the days of a “Star Wars” opening on 43 screens. A movie pre-multiplex was allowed to become an event, with the public discovering it on their own or through word of mouth. There was excitement in lining up to get a ticket, then hurrying in to find the best seat.

Now, if you can’t get in to the 7:10 showing, you just go to the 7:20 or 7:30. It takes away some of the uniqueness and exclusivity as well as the anticipation. Movie studios love getting as much of that money up front as they can to maximize their takes, and that’s understandable, so long as the theaters continue to enable it. But it makes one nostalgic for the time of the true “event” film.

With the higher screen count and faster turnover, studios feel they must continue to pump out content to fill these screens, resulting in a lot of garbage that should never see the light of day, or the dark of an auditorium, for that matter.

When the question of decreasing attendance was brought up last year, Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment, stated: “So far there is just nothing terribly compelling about what we’re delivering as an industry.”

What a sad commentary, both on the movie industry as a whole and we the movie going public, that some feel the need to release what is by a studio’s own admission not “terribly compelling.” Rather than reduce the number of films in production and focus on overall quality, the studios keep cranking out mediocrity, and the more discerning viewer opts to find something else to do with his time and dollar rather than support more of the same.

I’ve been a slow convert to the video-on-demand idea. I’ve long held the idea that if a film was good enough, a market would be found, and it would play in theaters. It may not play Joplin, but it’ll get enough of an audience to justify its existence.

But as iTunes and cable companies embraced the idea, quality has started to rise. It is now to the point that some films are available day and date on streaming as well as in theaters, or in Joplin’s case, before we ever get the opportunity to see them.

As I’ve watched more and more of them through the iTunes store, I’ve realized that VOD might not be such a bad thing. It allows filmmakers to reach a wider audience, many of whom might not have the opportunity to discover their work. It also allows the movie watcher the chance to see different films in a quiet and controlled environment, free from the distractions of the modern cinema-going experience at a fraction of the cost.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love the movie theater experience. But it seems that each showing is ruined by a crying baby, annoying cellphone screens popping up every 30 seconds, loud-mouthed fools and indifferent management, and a little bit of my love dies. My complaints about theater etiquette have been well documented, so I won’t recap here, but it is nice seeing a film and actually being able to focus on the events on screen.

Not that every theater is run this way. Joplin Electric Theater now offers a different environment in which to watch films with true movie lovers. I’ve had great experiences at the Moxie in Springfield, and I look forward to the reopening of the Alamo Drafthouse in Kansas City. They aren’t the permanent fix; you won’t get 14 screens worth of options. But at least there is an alternative.

There are fixes to the dwindling attendance issues. Theaters could focus on presentation quality and crowd control. Studios could focus on developing and releasing better films rather than just filler. Moviegoers could be more discerning with the films they spend their money on.

But don’t expect to see any of these changes take place soon. We get what we deserve, and if we continue to tolerate a sub-par product, we can look forward to more of the same.

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