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Cinema is in its death throes. But whose fault is this? Do we blame the directors of crappy films? The alternative viewing options now available? Or are you personally responsible?
Many of us love to go to movie theaters. Their demise would truly be a sad thing. It’s not just watching a film on the big screen: it’s an atmosphere. It’s having strangers around you to laugh and cry, jump and eat popcorn. Cinema brings people together.
True Detective director, Cary Fukunaga recently made some interesting remarks about the death of cinema. He points the spotlight at Netflix, at filmmakers, and at you, the viewing public. His latest project, he says, “was designed to be a film experienced in a group, collectively like this, with strangers in the dark [to] see this story.”
Are his claims substantiated? And who can we point the finger at? Let’s figure this out.
It’s All Your Fault
Fukunaga wants you to take your fair share of the responsibility. He has a point.
Maybe it’s not your fault in particular, but the audience has to accept that the fewer people who go to cinemas, the faster their decline. Ticket sales are falling, but annual revenue remains steady. In 1995, revenue stood at $5.29 billion before slowly rising to its pinnacle in 2002, a trend-bucking time for ticket sales too. Revenue reached $11.07 billion three years ago. Since then, proceeds have fallen to just above the $10 billion mark, and projections for 2015 estimate that we’ll stay at this plateau.
But what’s putting us off? Fukunaga says he doesn’t put all the blame on us: “you have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinema as the people who make it.”
Filmmaker, Heal Thyself?
If we’re becoming disenchanted with the big screen, surely it’s the fault of studios for churning out dross that doesn’t interest us?
Mention “the classics,” and you instantly conjure up images of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, or, if you’re of a certain persuasion, Star Wars: A New Hope. Any respectable list of top movies to watch before you die has a healthy smattering of Hitchcock, a brief jaunt to Oz, and a course of Kubrick. It’s safe to say none accompany It’s A Wonderful Life with The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause.
But many of our classics are childhood remnants, whether that’s the face-melting yell Luke gives off after finding out his true parentage, Captain Hook running scared from a ticking clock-croc, or Harry Potter’s pal Ron Weasley blurting out a “Bloody hell” (which totally wasn’t in the book). These are movies the majority of us have seen, yet how many have watched 1922’s Nosferatu, even though Rotten Tomatoes suggests it’s a full-blooded classic?
Turning to IMDb, we see their Top 250 populated by a hearty mix of Old and New. Are filmmakers really becoming more inept when IMDb’s current list cites Inception (2010), Interstellar (2014), The Pianist (2002), The Prestige (2006), and WALL·E (2008) as amongst the top quality productions? This generation of behind-the-scenes wizards were raised on Marty McFly, the Goonies, and facehuggers from the Alien series. Of course, for every Die Hard, there’s A Good Day to Die Hard, but it doesn’t appear that films are dumbing down or putting people off going to movie theaters.
Blame the Superheroes
IMDb also includes two grossly-overrated Batman films in its Top 75, while the top-grossing films of the last decade include Spider-Man (2002), Iron Man 3 (2013), and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). The Avengers: Age of Ultron is already breaking records. Fukunaga has warned that “the cinema experience will only be reserved for comic-book movies.” So is this a case of superhero dominance, man and superman?
The popularity of comic book adaptations is incredible. The 2008 film Iron Man brought the titular character into the mainstream. He’s now as recognizable as Spider-Man. Who’d have guessed that “I am Spartacus” would be momentarily overshadowed by “I am Groot”? And that a DC villains’ outing would attract such talent as Will Smith, Margot Robbie, and Jared Leto?
It appears that the geek has already inherited the Earth and that this enthusiasm for high-octane spectacle would dominate small-scale triumphs like The Pursuit of Happyness and The Book Thief (though perhaps not Fifty Shades of Grey). Epic movies that revel in their stunning direction and locales were made to be enjoyed on a screen greater than your in-car DVD player. More intimate tales require just that: intimacy.
However, it would be churlish to ignore the importance of a strong cast and an emotive storyline. Let’s not forget the pulling power of The Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game, and 12 Years a Slave.
For now, we should just be glad that superhero movies remain big draws to millions of cinema-goers.
Ooh-Arr the Pirates?
I naively thought pirating movies was largely a thing of the past, but then I’m thinking of strolling around a flea market and chancing upon a dodgy knock-off VHS of Titanic. Pirating is still big, but it has a new form. File-sharing technologies, including BitTorrent and magnets, are a substantial menace to anyone in the industry. Despite ISP blocks, the Pirate Bay and other pirating sites are increasing in popularity.
The most pirated film of 2014 was The Wolf of Wall Street with over 30 million illegal downloads, closely followed by Frozen with 29.9 million. The top 20 pirated movies of last year garnered a lot of media interest, whether for good – three Marvel movies, Gravity, and Captain Phillips – or bad (hello, The Legend of Hercules and Transformers: Age of Extinction).
This will obviously have a negative effect on cinemas, but likely not as great an impact as you might initially think. All those in the top 20 charted in the 100 top-grossing movies of their respective release years. Apart from The Legend of Hercules. In fact, if we exclude RoboCop too, the remaining 18 were in the top 50 in 2013 or 2014.
Netflix and Co.?
Fukanaga gives Netflix a good deal of credit for allowing more people to access content: that’s why his latest film, Beast of No Nation, is being shown on the streaming service.
Services offer you the chance to watch films before they’re on DVD. Why see something at the cinema when you can wait a month and watch it from the comfort of your lounge? British satellite broadcaster Sky now offers to send you a DVD upon release if you purchase a film download.
But if Netflix is drawing people away from the cinema, it’s also unwittingly fighting a winning battle against pirating. According to a report last year from Sand Vine [PDF link], a company that tracks Internet usage, in just one month, Netflix accounted for 34.9 percent of all downloaded data traffic in North America during peak times. BitTorrent made up just 2.8 percent of that same traffic (dropping from 7.6 percent in 2011). Though CBC News explains that it’s not as clean-cut as it sounds, a Netflix spokesperson explained that, “Ultimately people steal content because they can’t get it otherwise.”
That Global Financial Crisis Thingy
Bankers don’t get enough blame as it is, so we could level this further accusation at them – or more specifically, the recession.
It stands to reason that we don’t indulge in frivolous activities while we’re strapped for cash. Tickets are never cheap either. Even buying snacks at a multiplex can empty your wallet.
This is actually a positive thing. It means we’re in a trough, but that a peak will come, sooner or later. If we look at sales and revenue from 10 years ago, cinema was slowly recovering from the early 1990s recession. The top-grossing movie of 1995, Batman Forever (because people were sadists), brought in $183,997,904; in 1996 Independence Day jumped to $306,124,059; and in 1997 the figure jumped again to $443,319,081 – take a bow, Titanic.
Star Wars Episodes I and III were the top-grossing films of their respective years, so here’s hoping The Force Awakens reignites some love for the big screen.
Don’t Forget the Cinemas Themselves
If you want people to use your service, you better make sure that service is great. It’s not enough to simply show a blockbuster: the seats have to be comfortable, the sound levels right, and the food… edible.
And ticket prices have to be good too. In 1995, the average ticket cost US$4.35. In 2015, it’s $8.17. In the UK, it’s typically considerably more than that.
Most are prepared to splash out for top quality. These days, movies are generally over two bum-aching hours long, so the audience gets its money’s worth there. Yet movie theaters can be lacking – especially if they have a monopoly over the area.
It means that seats can be broken, floors can be sticky, and “TO BE DEMOLISHED” can be scrawled on the doors. My local cinema has just been updated (or at least its reception has), for the first time in nearly 15 years.
A Worthy Cause?
There’s no major factor here. We can’t point the finger at one section entirely. Yes, we’re to blame – but only as much as anyone else.
But if we want future generations to enjoy the cinema, we have to make a collected effort to indulge. Doctor Who broke records with its international simulcast of the 50th anniversary special, The Day of the Doctor: despite being on TV as well, people were drawn by a sense of, appropriately, companionship and fandom to watch it at the cinema. In three days, it made $10 million.
Show enough enthusiasm and this doesn’t have to be The End.
Image Credits: Cinema…teca by Ricardo Tomé, popcorn by Camilo Rueda López, Storie di Cinema by Francesco, The Pirate Captain by Ben Sutherland, Netflix envelope by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar, Winsor McCay, 1930 by Alan Light, and cinema at the barracks by AndreasS.