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Solutions for the Fading Cinema Experience – More Barsoom! ;-)

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An online discussion about the business aspects of Hollywood yielded the following link: http://www.mpaa.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/MPAA-Theatrical-Market-Statistics-2014.pdf

I found it to be a cool resource.

From it, I gather that over fifty percent of the money at the box office is made from the 12-40 age group. That group is the most likely to go to the movies for social reasons – to hang out with their friends – rather than for artistic reasons. They go to whatever is showing that piques their interest the most. Few in that group are motivated to get to a theater solely because a film has great storytelling. Their attendance is not a very accurate indicator of their satisfaction with the quality of the films. If a film is rotten, they’ll be more likely to avoid it. If a film is said to be awesome, they’re more likely to see it again with friends who didn’t make it the first time, perhaps several times.

Those who are younger than 12 generally go only when their parents take them to a “kid movie.” Those over 40 years old have generally entered a different social frame of mind and are more interested in quality or in niche genres.

So, we have most filmgoers (ages 12-40), who, more or less, go to the movies no matter what is showing, as long as they haven’t caught wind of a film being a stinker. Hollywood takes this demographic for granted and makes very few efforts to provide them with anything of exceptional quality. The mediocre quality of mass-market films, coupled with the myriad new technologies available for watching movies, is resulting in a decline in cinema attendance in North America since 2012. Is the current decline inevitable? What would it take to reverse the trend?

The budget of a film is a secondary consideration, or even a non-factor, to the vast majority of filmgoers. The answer is not to make cheaper movies which require less box office to be considered successful in the business sense. Few films are disparaged solely because they were expensive, and few are celebrated solely because they were inexpensive. When the budget of a film is held up as what determines success or not, the conversation has moved to defense and will neglect the much more compelling solution of increased quality. Budget efficiencies can move some borderline projects from the red into the black, but doesn’t the more intriguing question have to do with how to move a project from the red or the black into the GOLD? The ideal business model is to provide an excellent product or service and get paid a premium for it. Defensive thinking, which focuses on minimizing production costs, rather than on earning a premium purchase price, is essentially a stalling tactic, and doesn’t fix the root problem.

What about the fact that few films have enjoyed breakout success?  Does this make a business model built on improved quality impractical, since many films have not experienced such success despite being excellent?  It seems pathetic that anyone would have to make a case for investment in excellence, but the need to do so becomes obvious when business models built on risk aversion rule the day.  Although there have been a limited number of breakout successes in the past, that does not mean that the number of future successes is also limited.  Shrewd observation of what went into creating high-quality cinematic experiences can give future projects an increased likelihood of success.

The talent level of those involved in a project will always be a crucial variable, though perhaps not as crucial as the willingness of a filmmaker to learn from the successes and failures of others.  Those who insist on learning everything for themselves put their ego ahead of service to their audience.  Those who seek to assert themselves as re-inventors of the wheel are destined to repeat avoidable mistakes.  The industry would benefit from focusing on creating quality products, via methods of communal wisdom which draw little attention to individual filmmakers, rather than trying to inflate personal brands.  This approach could be pursued in a de facto manner and allowed to organically prove itself out through its results.  The celebrity-centered approach to film marketing doesn’t pay the dividends it used to, as audiences have been burned, and now have so many options for entertainment that they are no longer “wowed” by big names as easily as they once were.

The solution to the fading box office involves two elements, both dependent on the industry releasing better movies. First, movies need to be good enough that the 12-40 demographic will be eager to attend repeat viewings with other members of their social circle. The should be excited about taking a friend to a given movie who hasn’t seen it yet. This requires a well-made film which dispels concerns about embarrassment during a recommendation. A truly excellent film which ignites genuine enthusiasm can hope for an average of three ticket purchases per filmgoer. That increased quality can turn a $500 million-at-the-box-office film into a $1.5 billion film. If it is a phenomenal success, as was the case with Avatar, $2 billion to $3 billion is not out of the question. James Cameron doesn’t play defense in the making of his films, and the potential results have been demonstrated many times over.

The second element of the solution is for films to not only resonate with the core 12-40 demographic, but also to resonate with those over 40 years old, and draw them to the theater in extraordinary numbers. When this is achieved, a film can move from a roughly 50% market share to an 80% market share. The final 20% is composed mainly of those too young for a mass-market PG-13 film. (A great film can also compel parents of young children to arrange for a babysitter, thus freeing up a portion of the young family demographic.) Winning over the 40+ demographic requires more than cutting-edge technical achievements. It requires more than a raising of the bar in what is considered dark, edgy or gritty. Captivating the 40+ audience demands a timeless, rather than trendy, focus in the storytelling. Such films must delve deeply into archetypes, legends, history, tragedy, and bittersweet romance. The story can be as big and groundbreaking in the technical aspects, which typically appeal to the 12-40 crowd, as it wants to be, if it also includes a character-centered emotional core and commentary on the human condition which transcends time and culture.

A story with spectacle and heart, which breaks new ground and mines timeless themes, can appeal to young and old, men and women. This type of film becomes a cultural rallying point that demands to be seen in the amalgam of society which only the cinema can provide. Such a film rekindles enthusiasm for the modern world’s pinnacle format of creative expression, renewing in us appreciation for its synthesis of all the art forms. This can only happen at the movies.

Excellence isn’t available from a vending machine. There have been many routes to it. Many varying structures have achieved it. Certain environmental conditions are more conducive to it. It can rarely be rushed, and needs time and patience for refinement. It requires investment, nurture, and tough love. It needs the support, hard work, and trust of many. For all that it needs, the mountain to be climbed does not loom so tall when the climbers remember that their efforts help feed humanity’s timeless and ever-present hunger to know itself.

Filmgoers will pay a premium once or twice for each new distraction. They will fall in love and lose count of their ticket stubs when paying for self-knowledge and edification wrapped in transportive entertainment.

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