Forty-five Screens and Nothing to Watch

February 22, 2005 • Culture, Film, Lifestyle

Take the time. Support good film. Because if we have another year where “Taxi” is #1 in its first week out, I’ll be looking for you. And I fight dirty.

[Sun Star Online]
by Alex Grantham

I don’t think the public understands how the movie industry really works. I know, I know, the word “industry”; it conjures up images of smokestacks and iron skeletons dotting the landscape. But, you know, in all honesty, that isn’t too far from the truth. For all of its shiny cell phones and empty pretenses, Hollywood is an industry, constantly racing towards the profit curve, making decisions to the ring of sound business practices rather than artistic experimentation. And, for better or for worse, it’s killing film in America.

I write reviews. Often times those reviews concern movies. Why do I do it? Is it the overwhelming need to sound lofty, to get paid, to condemn bad taste? Sure, all of that plays a part. But mostly, I do it because I love film, always have. I love what movies provide, their potential, and undoubtedly, the craft that goes into making even the worst cinematic travesties.

In America, however, more than in any other country, the way in which film is produced has changed the playing field so dramatically that good films are finding it harder and harder to squeeze through the cracks. The complexities of the film industry don’t keep out bad movies; they castrate originality and repackage the same material for an audience in hopes that perhaps Jane Doe Moviegoer will forget seeing its blood brother only two months prior.

Take my hand as we look at three factors, briefly, that I feel have made America a deadly minefield for film and, in this time of awards and other Hollywood related celebrations, why roughly twelve quality movies a year does not a successful medium make.

Overselling a Dead Cow

Have you ever noticed how often, after one week, the total gross for the #1 movie dramatically plummets? It wasn’t always this way. Once, long ago, in a land of TV-free homes and Information Adequate Dirt Paths, word of mouth made or broke a movie. If it was what the public liked, they told each other and the movie steadily gained in revenue.

Today, people don’t know if a movie is good or not before they see it. Trailers provide almost no information, offering only an orgy of quick cuts and pretty flashes, and critics, like me, tend to be summarily ignored. But the advertising engine is strong, and a phenomenon known as “buzz” is created, assembling a creature that feeds off of misinformation and hollow feats of lights and magic.

Theatres pack for crappy movies opening weekend, patrons leave in a daze, and the profits slump. Unfortunately, because this trend is seen by Hollywood as a time-tested method, they buy into it. Small, quality movies that can’t afford an $80 million dollar advertising budget are buried and people make due with mediocre fare.

Movies like “Good Will Hunting” and “Napoleon Dynamite” are deceptive. They seem to buck the trend, but in truth, they are mass marketed as “the one independent film to watch this year.” In essence, they become Hollywood “arties” that make an executive portfolio look more cultured at the audience’s expense.

VHS: A Love-Hate Relationship

The Japanese came up with it and we turned it into one of the most profitable industries of the last century. But what Americans didn’t understand (and perhaps still don’t) about the home movie player was that countries like Japan had no other way to view film. There were very few theatres in such places and the lifestyle didn’t allow for much “dinner and a movie” style action.

But we didn’t care. Now we could watch all of our favorite movies whenever we wanted, in the comfort of our own homes. The only problem was, with home viewing comes home comfort. Today watching a movie is no longer an event, it’s white noise. People do their homework while they watch movies, do the dishes, talk on the phone. And because Hollywood saw the rise in home viewing popularity at its inception, linear storytelling has become the dominant format.

With it, you can leave the room for five or ten minutes and still pick up on the events of the movie. That’s why films like “Memento” are so mind-boggling to today’s audience. There is very little room for storytelling variety in American films thanks to the original success of the VHS and its inevitable spawn (i.e. Laserdisc, DVD etc.). Only now are innovative directors successfully chipping away at this stonewall approach.

Forty-five Screens and Nothing to Watch

In the early 1990s, America overhauled its theatre system, demolishing most neighborhood establishments in favor of much larger, city-centralized megaplexes. And, at first, it seemed like a good thing. More screens meant more variety, right? Well, not exactly.

In order to stay afloat (a CNN news report conducted in 2001 showed that 72% of megaplexes are either bankrupt or teetering very near it), larger cinemas place more popular movies on multiple screens. While this originally allowed for roughly four screens be devoted to smaller and more independent films in a 25 screen theatre, the latest trend has been to push said flicks out entirely so that approximately six or seven high-budget movies – each consuming three to five screens – can provide the steady crowds.

Surprisingly, this makes the Mom-and-Pop arena superior to an oversized megaplex due to the latter’s desperate need for an insatiable income in order to survive. The cost-to-income pitfall of a larger location pushes the theatre to accentuate what sells and, more often than not, ignore the rest.

All in all?

Hollywood isn’t all bad. Without such massive exposure, people probably would never have seen lucky gems like “The Royal Tenenbaums” or “Amelie.” Sometimes, the industry does get it right and strives for variety, but only so far as the money supports it.

I suppose, in the end, what I want to say is that I wish you, the viewer, would be more discerning. If it looks like crap, don’t watch it. Believe me, they will stop making it if you stop going. If it looks good and in danger of evaporating into the Hollywood machine, go and see it. Tell your friends to go and see it. You have more influence on this behemoth than you think.

Take the time. Support good film. Because if we have another year where “Taxi” is #1 in its first week out, I’ll be looking for you. And I fight dirty.


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