November 13, 2005

Why aren't you going to the movies?

Man, this description of the economics of moviemaking is depressing! Read the article for the details, but this is the real effect:
In most cases, nearly half of a movie's total audience turns out in the first week of release, which means there has been very little or no word of mouth motivating most of the audience. In other words, many people go to a movie without any real information about it - without even reading a review. Or, put most cynically: Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.

So what makes people go to a movie? Generally, it is awareness - or now, in Hollywood parlance, "pre-awareness." Since studios cannot spend enough on advertising to buy awareness (there is so much advertising noise in the marketplace these days), there is a tendency to make movies with familiar titles, characters and stories: "The Dukes of Hazzard," "Spider-Man," "War of the Worlds," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." In the past decade, most box-office revenue has come from pre-aware titles, which includes sequels ("X-Men 3," set for a May 2006 release) and remakes ( "King Kong," Dec. 14).
I guess that explains my personal pre-awareness: I'm not going to like any of these movies. And I don't want to. I used to look for movies to like. Now, I flip through the pages and pages of ads for new movies and feel nothing but resistance. Too many. Too much. They're all bad.

39 comments:

EddieP said...

Too many. Too much. They're all bad.

Well said. I saw the original French Connection, Dirty Harry, and Bullit. Now they recycle them every year with new titles.

jar said...

I stopped by the movie theater on Friday and decided to see Chicken Little. Hadn't seen a movie in awhile and had free time between events. It was okay but I find that new cartoon features put music of the parents generation into their films for the parents enjoyment instead of trying to make their cartoons smart or put in some intellectually funny things that only parents will get. I miss that.

I am looking forward to The Chronicles of Narnia however and Harry Potter is a must with my youngest and his friends.

Julian Morrison said...

I don't think it's fair to say "many people go to a movie without any real information about it". Any major movie comes with a pre-release blitz of publicity. There's trailers, reviews, screen-shots, etc. In other words, what you're seeing isn't people buying the title. They're excercising the remarkable human facility for guessing on limited data.

Dave said...

The Wall St. Journal's Joe Morgenstern has a similar article, here. I believe the article, like the rest of the Journal, is free this week.

Firehand said...

I haven't gone to the movies in a long time because most of them are crap. Among other things, there's a difference between an effect that's part of the story(if there is one), and an extra explosion or whatever thrown in because some studio weenie thinks it's really something.

I planned to see Serenity, but between work and other things couldn't make it; so in this case I'll buy the DVD when it comes out.

brylin said...

Hugh Hewitt has a good point:

"How much money would a well-made movie honoring the soldiers, sailors, airmen, Coast Guard and Marines of the armed services haul in?

Why hasn't it been made?"


I was going to take my 15-yr old son to see Jarhead until I read Hugh's blog entry.

Hollywood is so obsessed with leftism that it seems to be abandoning profits for ideology. See Ann Coulter's latest column.

Disclaimer: Both Hewitt and Coulter are Michigan Law grads, but this isn't about school spirit. Really.

Ron said...

Oh you mean movies like Black Hawk Down? Heartbreak Ridge? Saving Private Ryan? Windtalkers? Even older movies like Hunt for Red October are out there. Yes, Hollywood has a slant, but it's not correct that they don't make movies that honor military men. Certainly more than '60's military movies!

brylin said...

Ron,

I think Hewitt's point was reflective of the Gulf War and the War in Iraq, where leftist ideology prevents a movie of the type you list.

As for the movies you cited, they are relatively old and involve other wars/campaigns:

Windtalkers – 2002 (WW II)
Black Hawk Down – 2001 (Somalia)
Saving Private Ryan – 1998 (WW II)
Heartbreak Ridge – 1986 (Grenada)
Hunt for Red October – 1990 (Cold War)

And the recent downward trend in box office revenues is further evidence.

And, whether you like the movie or not, The Passion of Christ was a huge box office success. Yet no Hollywood copycat movies?

P. Froward said...

In most cases, nearly half of a movie's total audience turns out in the first week of release...

Would those cases be the ones where the first-week audience tell their friends it's crap?


Most of the time, there is no relationship between how good a film is, and how many people turn out to see it.

More like "how many people turn out to see it in the first week." Thereafter, it's a function of that initial number and how much they liked it.

Bruce Hayden said...

I am another who has one young enough that both Narnia and Potter are necessities. Right now, given the choice between the two, and given the stuff about it already on TV, my guess is that Narnia would come in first.

But note that both of these movies have pre-awareness in that both are derived from very successful books.

As for me, I think I make movies at theaters with adults only about once ever five years - all with dates I think. Waiting until they come out in video always seems to work for me.

erp said...

I don't think it's quite fair to say that people go to the movies "without any real information about it - without even reading a review.”

Almost all the information we need to know about a film is revealed by a cursory review of the newspaper ads and the cast lists. The interminable coming attractions which can take up to 20 minutes of movie viewing time in the theater also lets us know more than enough about the next round of films.

We don’t like films full of gore, teenage angst or leftwing propaganda, nor do we add to the considerable wealth of those who hate us and our country, so we don’t see films with people like Whoopi, Barbra, Tim, Eric . . .

Subsequently, there are often months between our visits to the cinema.

I wish movie makers would take heed. There are millions more like us. We’re retired, enjoy a nice income, have time and energy at our disposal and would go the movies at least once a week or even more if there was something showing we wanted to see. In fact, right now there are a dozen or more movies being shown within a 25 mile radius of our home and there isn’t a one we’d go to see.

Troy said...

EddieP -- I agree -- Bullitt and French Conn. (who can choose between car chases?!?) were great and are being recycled. But there was plenty of crapola in the 1970s. In the 1940s, for every Casablanca (which means ONE) there was plenty of junk which none of us will ever see because it either wasn't preserved or no one wants to show it.

Surely, there are just as many "quality" (not meaning esoteric necessarily) films made today as in the 1930s-50s where each studio could crank out a movie a week.

I live in So Cal. The main reason I'm pickier about movies is that with gas prices, three kids,etc. I don't have the $40+ (2 tix, drinks, popcorn) to go the 4-6 movies a month we went to pre-kid -- plain and simple.

War Movies... I saw Flying Leathernecks last night (TCM)-- great movie viewing experience, but mostly because it was the Duke being the Duke. The plot was simplistic and a retread of the tough ass sgt./officer who does things his men won't understand, the popular guy dies in combat after a rapprochement with his officer, etc. It's a bad movie (as a lot of 1940s/50s war movies are -- I hate to say), but I have a nostalgia for John Wayne and for the 1940s.

twwren said...

I avoid movies featuring George Clooney and other politically active actors not as a protest but because I cannot escape; I can't separate their political persona from the characters they portray.

Starless said...

I think if you separate out the "good" movies from the "bad" movies, you'll probably find that the overall quality has increased over the years. Technology has helped out significantly (not just CGI, but film quality and sound also) and the "good" actors are technically better through more formalized training. The difference is in volume.

Just 10 or 20 years ago, there used to be maybe one or two big budget movies per season, now there are five or six. The movie industry is under a lot of competitive pressure (TV, cable, DVDs, the Internet), so they're trying to compete with volume. That means more, better movies in the theater, but it also means a lot more crap gets shoved through the distribution chain to the local theater. So, yeah, there are a lot of bad movies out there and that makes it harder to distinguish between what's going to be good and what isn't.

If people aren't informed before they go to see movies, then they aren't using technology. Sites like RottenTomatoes give a quick measure of what's getting good reviews and what isn't. It isn't a be-all and end-all to say what is "good" and what is "bad", but it's a good way to winnow out the garbage and go from there.

Will said...

My wife and I love movies, but we see them at The Alamo Drafthouse - no kids, good food, great booze. A pitcher of New Castle made even "The Hulk" a good movie!

PatCA said...

I also am depressed by today's movies but I thought it was because I was just super critical (master's in film studies).

Last time I read about the business of movies--and it may have changed--I learned that studios retain a larger percentage of the box office the first weekend; then on a sliding scale the revenue share goes to the screener. So studios want to make as much as they can early.

Another aspect of the business model IMO that results in bad movies, and that is the independent contractor status of all the creatives. In the studio system, employee/directors and stars made lots of movies, some good and some bad. Today, directors and stars make millions for one movie up front and are set, even if it tanks, so the studio desperately searches for safe subjects--best selling books, big stars--not story.

Coppola tried the studio method once and failed, but he was somewhat mercurial as a manager. I think a real business person could run a studio successfully today.

miklos rosza said...

I guess these days I almost exclusively see films as DVDs on the TV. This strikes me as somewhat sad, because the experience is so drastically different.

I blame George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. This may be oversimplistic, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it.

I saw "Trainspotting" in a theatre.

I don't much like stunt doubles and special effects.

miklos rosza said...

I remember a few years ago reading a publicist talking about what a triumph of his art it is to get a truly lousy movie to have a big opening weekend (before the word gets out).

This is one of the bad side-effects of capitalism.

Joe Baby said...

I recently worked with about 20 people in the 17-25 yo range.

I'd say on average, they saw at least 1 movie in a theatre per week. They would watch whatever was coming out, almost like folks went to the theatre or the cinema decades ago.

They also had an extremely liberal grading scale. At worst, a movie would get the "it had some cool stuff in it" rating.

Let's face it -- if the market is that willing to purchase anything, film quality doesn't matter.

Palladian said...

I think that as it became technically easier to make movies, as special effects became cheaper and easier, movie makers became lazier and lazier. Look at something like Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", which was written by Arthur C. Clark and Kubrick, not a marketing team and script doctors, has absolutely flawless, beautiful special effects (which were excruciatingly difficult to create) in the service of the story, has first rate actors yet very little dialog. And it's a science fiction movie yet makes no compromises to either science or poetry. And it has only one explosion (when Dave blows the hatch on the pod in order to get back into the ship) which, in keeping with the reality of space, is absolutely silent! There is something grand about this movie, and I think that's something we've lost; movies don't go for grand anymore. They seem disposable.

Another thing that has absolutely gone down the toilet is the art of the movie poster. I mean, what happened? Every single damned poster looks exactly the same, the same boring graphic style, and there seems to be a law now that every performer in the movie has to have a picture of their face on the poster, no matter how the faces have to be shoe horned into the design (this is apparently called "Big Heads Floating in the Sky"). I sort of think that Photoshop has a lot to do with the laziness that has overtaken movie poster design, as well as the sclerotic hand of the focus-group driven marketing department.

Starless said...

2001 is one of the best movies of all time, but how much garbage was shown in theaters at that time? How many awful horror movies and inane teen beach movies were made in the '60s? A movie like 2001 is the exception, not the rule.

The trouble is, I think, when we look at the past we remember only the good movies and not the bad. We can moan about how production companies churn out bad movies just because they want to make a quick buck, but when hasn't that been true of the movie business?

And while it's true that special effects have become easier to make, I don't think good special effects have become easier to make. Kubrick used the FX technology and techniques (many of which he stole from George Pal, btw) of the time to great effect. A lesser director would have botched it, but again, Kubrick is the exception of the time, not the rule.

At this time, we're just being hit with a blizzard of movie stimuli. The turn-around time for movies in theaters is at a much, much higher rate (the original Star Wars was in theaters for a year, how long was The Fellowship of the Ring in theaters? A couple of months?) so it's harder to catch the good stuff if you're not quick enough and there's less time for a movie to gain Legendary status.

My only real complaint is that I really abhore sitting through Pepsi and American Express commercials in a theater.

Ann Althouse said...

Palladian: You are so right about the posters -- which are also most of the ads. The dramatically shadowed, lined up faces -- even thinking about it makes me ill. It's like Easter Island. And with all the Botox, they're just about as expressive. When I think about movies, I think, faces, ugh. A lot of people here are complaining about the special effects, but I can't stand to look at the actors anymore! That's just bizarre, but I'm ready to believe it's something they are doing to movies, ruining them.

Ann Althouse said...

It's funny to me that "2001" has developed such a strong artistic reputation over the years. When it came out, everyone just thought it was a big light show, best seen high, and afterwards we all said, "What the hell was that supposed to be about?"

Palladian said...

Ann, that's a good point! The faces are so generic that I often can't tell people apart anymore. There is no grandness or strangeness to most Hollywood faces these days. I always think about the opening to Hitchcock's Vertigo, with the long extreme closeup of Kim Novak's expressionless face staring at the camera, which scans her like some sort of medical device- my gosh! She would never make it in today's Hollywood.

And talk about movie posters, it's hard to beat Saul Bass' poster for Vertigo.

Of course, it is possible to do the "big head floating in the sky" well- when the big head is Garbo's. Wow.

Starless said...

Ann Althouse said...
It's funny to me that "2001" has developed such a strong artistic reputation over the years. When it came out, everyone just thought it was a big light show, best seen high, and afterwards we all said, "What the hell was that supposed to be about?"

Haha. Almost thirty years later, many people still think that.

erp said...

For some reason I never saw 2001 when it came out, so we rented it a couple of years ago and my reaction was the same as some of you, what was that all about?

Perhaps seeing it on a large screen in the theater was a different experience as it often is, but watching a DVD was a big ho-hum.

PatCA said...

2001 was the first of big artsy, philosophical special effects sci-fi extravaganzas, at least for Baby Bommers, so it's an icon. I'm sure all the marijuana smoke inhaled during a screening had something to do with it, as well.

Starless said...

erp said...
For some reason I never saw 2001 when it came out, so we rented it a couple of years ago and my reaction was the same as some of you, what was that all about?

Multi-dimensional beings come and tinker with the evolution of man and give Dave Bowman a peak at what the next stage of evolution will be. It was also about how space travel is not Flash Gordon rocketships getting to Mars in a couple of days, but long, tedious, and isolating. Clarke (pushing 90) has published an alternative to the "space odyssey" idea with Stephen Baxter--the "time odyssey": Time's Eye and Sunstorm. _Time's Eye_ was pretty good but I haven't gotten to _Sunstorm_ yet.

Perhaps seeing it on a large screen in the theater was a different experience as it often is, but watching a DVD was a big ho-hum.

Oh, my people!

(Sorry)

Morgan Freeman has been trying to get _Rendezvous with Rama_ made into a movie since 1997. It's supposed to be out next year, but no one knows if it will happen.

PatCA said...

Everybody I talk to, including creatives from Hollywood, say they're staying in and watching Turner Classics!

erp said...

Starless, I actually was able to follow the story line, by my question I meant what was the fuss about? I thought 2001 dull and ho hum as seen on an old TV at home.

Perhaps seeing it in a theater when it first came out in 1968 would have had an impact. The music remains great.

Starless said...

erp said...
Starless, I actually was able to follow the story line, by my question I meant what was the fuss about? I thought 2001 dull and ho hum as seen on an old TV at home.

OIC. My apologies if I sounded pedantic.

If you're a dedicated space nerd like myself, it's the most accurate fictional film portrayal of what space travel would be like. For most, I think it's a very visually stunning movie (so, yeah, a small screen doesn't do it justice). For people who find being "artsy" trendy, I'm sure the apes hopping about, the monolith, and the psychedelic bits have some deep symbolic meaning for them.

Perhaps seeing it in a theater when it first came out in 1968 would have had an impact. The music remains great.

Hard to beat Strauss when you're approaching a torus space station.

In 1968, it was a completely new film. I don't think anything like it had been seen before, so I'm sure it jarred quite a few people. Also, 1968 was the year Apollo 8 went around the moon and one year before the anticipated moon landing, so it was very relevant.

erp said...

Starless, I can hardly claim nerdiness, but loved reading science fiction when I was a kid in the 40's, yes that's right, it's not a typo.

We watched very little TV when my kids were growing up. The one exception was Star Trek. We actually got a color TV just because of that show. Lately my little granddaughter is a fan of Harry Potter and the LOTR, so we’ve been watching them too. All great fun.

Thanks for taking the time to educate me about 2001.

XWL said...

Don't forget to blame HBO and Showtime movies and series for the dearth of good adult films coming from Hollywood.

They can attract top line talent on small budgets for prestige films since they don't have to worry about distribution. The talent also knows that their work will be seen and repeated for a good amount of time, plus there is the added bonus of award show buzz that those projects often generate.

Globalization of audiences also can be partially blamed. Horrid stories and bad acting can still bring great receipts in Brazil, Korea, Italy, etc. if the action is bigger and explosions louder than anything that can be produced domestically (whereas audiences tend to favor locally produced dramas since well written stories don't always transcend cultures and languages as well as the boom and flash does).

Starless said...

erp said...
Starless, I can hardly claim nerdiness, but loved reading science fiction when I was a kid in the 40's, yes that's right, it's not a typo.

Ah, well then you would have been reading the great Golden Age writers just as their work came off the printing press. Sad that Clarke and Bradbury are the only ones left now.

But speaking of Hollywood garbage, its treatment of Heinlein's great _Starship Troopers_ (a piece of great controversy) was a good example of the belief that special effects can dull the critical senses of an audience. What a horrible, horrible piece of crap they managed to make out of a very good book.

Lately my little granddaughter is a fan of Harry Potter and the LOTR, so we’ve been watching them too. All great fun.

I hope she will also read LoTR. The movies were great, the books are greater.

Thanks for taking the time to educate me about 2001.

Oy, don't get me started on 2001, I won't shut up about it.

Ernst Blofeld said...

Maybe the HBOs of the world are the modern equivalent of the old studio system.

With the 15-25 age group I suspect the content of the movie is almost irrelevant. The idea is to go out with their friends, and the theater provides an accepted social context for that.

Tristram said...

I think if you separate out the "good" movies from the "bad" movies, you'll probably find that the overall quality has increased over the years. Technology has helped out significantly (not just CGI, but film quality and sound also) and the "good" actors are technically better through more formalized training. The difference is in volume.

Well, Cinemetography has certainly imporved, as well as the theatre (projector/sound systems and in some cases the chairs...lol).

But the scripting and to a large extent the acting has stagnated or even regressed from older movies.

Starless said...

Ernst Blofeld said...
With the 15-25 age group I suspect the content of the movie is almost irrelevant. The idea is to go out with their friends, and the theater provides an accepted social context for that.

I think that's been true for decades.

I'm not buying this "everything in theaters is crap these days and things were so much better back then" argument. It sounds too much like, "these kids these days don't know nothin'!" Were people really more discerning 20, 30, 40 years ago? Are young people these days so much more gullible and vacuous? (Should we talk about poodle skirts, bell bottoms, the Twist, New Wave?)

What we're seeing these days is an increase in volume over anything else. The MPAA is fighting a rear-guard action against fierce competition from other media so they're throwing anything they can up against the wall to see what will stick. As a result, the "good" can get lost in the quagmire of the "bad".

tristram said...
But the scripting and to a large extent the acting has stagnated or even regressed from older movies.

I think you have to separate talent from technical proficiency. Talent is transcendant--you've got it or you don't and whether talent makes it to the screen or not is more dependent on random events than anything else. I think this is a constant in the film industry. Technical proficiency is a matter of training and I think you'd be hard-pressed to argue that there was more in the past than there is now.

paulfrommpls said...

Sometimes I think the best movies of all are the movies that register 2.5 to 3 stars in movie guides. There used to be a lot of them, it seems.

I recently went through a movie guide, upon realizing that a really cool Robert Mitchum rodeo flick I was watching had been directed by the estimable Don Siegel (original Body Snatchers; Dirty Harry). I looked up all his movies, and I think they were all 2.5 to 3 stars, and they all seemed great, and they were all low-budget.

I think that's maybe been the main area where Hollywood movies have basically disappeared: there's just not as many pretty quick, cheap, and damn good and better upon reflection movies being made.

These days, a movie that has pretensions to being Quality just reeks of Qualty, and actually that's true as well of "indy" movies. "Dances With Wolves" - how often do you really, really want to watch that? Like, never?

Theorem: movies tend to be best when they're not trying to be great, but are quietly being made by folks who don't take Art all that seriously but are just doing a good job making a good movie. I would say.

I don't know where Hitchcock fits into all this; he was obviously trying to make quality movies. He was conscious of the art form. But he also worked with low budgets, by and large. And at the time, he was looked down as making movies for the masses. I believe.

It's amazing how ignored he was at Oscar time in the 50's, by the way.

Oh, and of course, "European art movie" makes as much sense to me as "classical harmonica." I just don't care.

Starless said...

paulfrommpls said...
I think that's maybe been the main area where Hollywood movies have basically disappeared: there's just not as many pretty quick, cheap, and damn good and better upon reflection movies being made.

This is where we come back to Entertainment Economics and having to make the most you can in the first two weeks. Movie-making is so expensive and theater turn-around times are so fast these days, that it's hard to make something relatively low budget and then let it sit in the theaters for a while until it gets a following. Serenity is a very, very good science fiction movie that was made on a relatively low budget. It was released September 30th of this year and went from first-run to second-run theaters in only a few weeks. If you blinked, you missed it.

I don't know where Hitchcock fits into all this; he was obviously trying to make quality movies. He was conscious of the art form. But he also worked with low budgets, by and large. And at the time, he was looked down as making movies for the masses. I believe.

Hitchcock was rare genius, I don't think directors like him really fit in any particular time.