I don’t know whether I should be grateful or not when I read the film trade journals or major newspapers and run across columns bemoaning the decline of the cinema. On the one hand, these give me plenty of fodder for blogging. On the other, they promote a false impression that the movie industry and the art form in general are in far worse shape than they really are.
One recent case in point is Neil Gabler’s “The movie magic is gone,” from February 25, where he says that movies have lost their previous importance in American society and are less and less relevant to our lives.
Gabler makes some sweeping claims. Movie attendance is down because movies have lost the importance they once had in our culture. Our obsession with stars and celebrities has replaced our interest in the movies that create them. Niche marketing has replaced the old “communal appeal” of movies. The internet intensifies that division of audiences into tiny groups and fosters a growing narcissism among consumers of popular culture. Audiences have become less passive, creating their own movies for outlets like YouTube. In videogames, people’s avatars make them stars in their own right, and the narratives of games replace those of movies.
Films will survive, Gabler concludes, but they face “a challenge to the basic psychological satisfactions that the movies have traditionally provided. Where the movies once supplied plots, there are alternative plots everywhere.” This epochal challenge, he says, “may be a matter of metaphysics.”
All this is news to me, and I think I have been paying fairly close attention to what has been going on in the moviemaking sphere over the past ten years—the period over which Gabler claims all this has been happening. Evidence suggests that all of his points are invalid.
1. Gabler states that “the American film industry has been in a slow downward spiral.” Based on figures from Exhibitors Relations, a box-office tracking firm, attendance at theaters fell from 2005 (a particularly down year) to 2006. A Zogby survey found that 45% of Americans had decreased their movie-going over the past five years, especially including the key 18-24-year-old audience. “Foreign receipts have been down, too, and even DVD sales are plateauing.” Such a broad decline “suggests that something has fundamentally changed in our relationship to the movies.”
Turning to a March 6 Variety article by Ian Mohr, “Box office, admissions rise in 2006,” we read a very different account of recent trends. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, admissions rose, “with 1.45 billion tickets sold in 2006—ending a three-year downward trend.” Foreign markets improved as well, “where international box office set a record of $16.33 billion as it jumped 14% from the 2005 total.” Within the U.S., grosses rose 5.5% over 2005.
We should keep in mind that part of the perception of a recent decline comes from the fact that 2002 was a huge year for box-office totals, mainly stemming from the coincidence of releases of entries in what were then the four biggest franchises going: Spider-man, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Star Wars. There was almost bound to be a decline after that. Such films make so much money that the fluctuations in annual box-office receipts in part reflect the number of mega-blockbusters that appear in a given year.
Looking at the longer terms, though, the biggest decline in U.S. movie-going was in the 1950s, as television and other competing leisure activities chipped away at audiences. Even so, the movies survived and from 1960 onward annual attendance hovered at just under a billion people. From 1992 on, a slow rise occurred, until by 1998 it reached roughly 1.5 billion and has hovered around that figure ever since, with a peak in 2002 at 1.63 billion. Variety’s figure of 1.45 billion for 2006 fits the pattern perfectly. In short, there has been no significant fall-off since the 1950s. (See the appendix in David’s The Way Hollywood Tells It for a year-by-year breakdown.) The article also states that industry observers expect 2007 to be especially high, given the Harry Potter, Spider-man, and Pirates of the Caribbean entries due out this year. About a year from now, expect pundits to be seeking reasons within the culture why movie-going is up. I suspect they will find that we are looking for escapism. Safe enough. When aren’t we?
Apart from theatrical attendance figures, let’s not forget that more people are watching the same movies on DVDs and on bootleg copies that don’t get into the official statistics.
2. Gabler claims that movies are no longer “the democratic art” that they were in the 20th Century. During that century, even faced with the introduction of TV, “the movies still managed to occupy the center of American life….A Pauline Kael review in the New Yorker could once ignite an intellectual firestorm … People don’t talk about movies the way they once did.”
Maybe the occasional Kael review created debate, as when she claimed that Last Tango in Paris was the “Rite of Spring” of the cinema. I think we all know by now that she was wrong. A lot of us even knew it at the time, and it’s no wonder that people argued with her. I doubt that attempts to refute her claims there or in other reviews reflected much about the health of the general population’s enthusiasm for movies.
More crucially, however, people do still talk about the movies, and lively debates go on. It’s just that now much of the discussion happens on the internet, on blogs and specialized movie sites, and in Yahoo! groups. (Who would have thought that David’s entry on Sátántango would be popular, and yet there turn out to be quite a few people out there passionately interested in Tarr’s film.)
Some would see the health of movie fandom on the internet as a sign that the cinema has become more democratic than ever. Now it’s not just casual water-cooler talk or a group of critics arguing among themselves. Anyone can get involved. The results range from vapid to insightful, but there’s an immense amount of discussion going on.
3. Interest in movies has eroded in part due to what Gabler has termed “knowingness.” By this he means the delight people take in knowing the latest gossip about celebrities. Movies have declined in importance because they exist now in part to feed tabloids and entertainment magazines.
“Knowingness” is basically a taste for infotainment. Infotainment had been around in a small way since before World War I in the form of fan magazines and gossip columns. It really took off beginning in the 1970s, with the rise of cable and the growth of big media companies that could promote their products—like movies—across multiple platforms. (I trace the rise of infotainment in Chapter 4 of The Frodo Franchise.) It’s not clear why one should assume that a greater consumption of infotainment leads to less interest in going to movies.
People in the film industry seem to assume the opposite. Studio publicity departments and stars’ personal publicity managers feed the gossip outlets, in part to control what sorts of information get out but mainly because those outlets provide great swathes of free publicity. With the rise of new media, there are more infotainment outlets appearing all the time. Naturally this trend is obvious even to those of us who don’t care about Britney’s latest escapade. But I doubt that watching Britney coverage actually makes people less inclined to go to, say, The Devil Wears Prada, one of the mid-range surprise successes that helped boost 2006’s box-office figures.
4. Movies have lost their “communal appeal” in part because the public has splintered into smaller groups, and the industry targets more specialized niche markets. According to Gabler, “the conservative impulse of our politics that has promoted the individual rather than the community has helped undermine movies’ communitarian appeal.”
Let’s put aside the idea that conservative politics erode the desire for community. The extreme right wing has certainly put enough stress on community and has banded together all too effectively to promote their own mutual interests lately. But is the industry truly marketing primarily to niche audiences?
Of course there are genre films. There always have been. Some appeal to limited audiences, as with the teen-oriented slasher movie. Yet despite the continued production of low-budget horror films, comedies, romances, and so on, Hollywood makes movies aimed at the “family” market because so many moviegoers fit into that category. Most of the successful blockbusters of recent years have consistently been rated PG or PG-13. According to Variety, 85% of the top 20 films of 2006 carried these ratings. Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-man, Harry Potter—these are not niche pictures, though distributors typically devise a series of marketing strategies for each film, with some appealing to teen-age girls, others to older couples, and so on.
(An important essay by Peter Krämer discusses blockbusters with broad appeal: “Would you take your child to see this film? The cultural and social work of the family-adventure movie,” in Steve Neale and Murray Smith’s anthology, Contemporary Hollywood Cinema, published by Routledge in 1998.)
The result is that, despite the fact that niche-oriented films appear and draw in a limited demographic, there are certain “event” pictures every year that nearly everyone who goes to movies at all will see—more so than was probably the case in the classic studio era. Those films saturate our culture, however briefly, and surely they “enter the nation’s conversation,” as Gabler claims “older” films like The Godfather, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings did. By the way, the last installment of The Lord of the Rings came out only a little over three years ago. Surely the vast cultural upheaval that the author posits can’t have happened that quickly.
5. The internet exacerbates this niche effect by dividing users into tiny groups and creates a “narcissism” that “undermines the movies.”
See number 2 above. I don’t know why participating in small group discussions on the internet should breed narcissism any more than would a bunch of people standing around an office talking about the same thing. In fact, there are thousands of people on the internet spending a lot of their own time and effort, many of them not getting paid for it, providing information and striving to interest others in the movies they admire.
The internet allows likeminded people to find each other with blinding speed. Often fans will stress the fact that what they form are communities. They delight in knowing that many share their taste and want to interact with them. Some of these people no doubt have big egos and are showing off to whomever will pay attention. Narcissism, however, implies a solitary self-absorption that seems rare in online communities.
A great many of these communities form around interest in movies. In this way, the internet has made movies more important in these people’s lives, not less.
6. Audiences have become active, creating their own entertainment for outlets like YouTube, and are hence less interested in passive movie viewing. These are situations “in which the user is effectively made into a star and in which content is democratized.”
No doubt more people are writing, composing, filming, and otherwise being creative because of the internet. Some of this creativity and the consumption of it by internet users takes up time they could be using watching movies.
Yet anyone who visits YouTube knows that a huge number of the clips and shorts posted there are movie scenes, trailers, music videos based on movie scenes, little films re-edited out of shots taken from existing movies, and so on. In some cases the makers of these films have pored over the original and lovingly re-crafted it in very clever ways. A lot of the creativity Gabler notes actually is inspired by movies. Some people post their films on YouTube because they are aspiring movie-makers hoping to get noticed. The movie industry as a whole is not at odds with YouTube and other sites of fan activity, despite the occasional removal of items deemed to constitute piracy.
7. New media allow these active, narcissistic spectators to star in their own “alternative lives.” “Who needs Brad Pitt if you can be your own hero on a video game, make your own video on YouTube or feature yourself on Facebook?”
In discussing videogames, Gabler perpetuates the myth that “video games generate more income than movies.” This is far from being true, and hence his claim that videogames are superseding movies is shaky. (I debunk this myth in Chapter 8 of The Frodo Franchise.)
Even the spread of videogames does not necessarily mean that fans are deserting movies. On the contrary, there is evidence that people who consume new media also consume the old medium of cinema. Mohr’s Variety article reports on a recent study by Nielsen Entertainment/NRG: “Somewhat surprisingly, the same study revealed that the more home entertainment technology an American owns, the higher his rate of theater attendance outside the home. People with households containing four or more high-tech components or entertainment delivery systems—from DVD players to Netflix subscriptions, digital cable, videogame systems or high-def TV—see an average of three more films per year in theaters than people with less technology available in their homes.”
Apart from the shaky factual basis of the column, what does the end-of-cinema genre tell us about how trends get interpreted by commentators?
As I pointed out in my March 9 entry, some commentators explain perceived trends in film by generalizing about the content of the movies themselves. “As soon as some trend or apparent trend is spotted, the commentator turns to the content of the films to explain the change. If foreign or indie films dominate the awards season, it must be because blockbusters have finally outworn their welcome. If foreign or indie films decline, it must be because audiences want to retreat from reality into fantasy. It’s an easy way to generate copy that sounds like it’s saying something and will be easily comprehensible to the general reader.”
Gabler is arguing for something different—something that, if it were true would be more depressing for those who love movies. He’s not positing that movies have failed to cater to the national psyche. He’s claiming that other forces, largely involving new media, have changed that national psyche in a way which moviemakers could never really cope with. Cinema as an art form cannot provide what these other media can, and spectators caught up in the options those media offer will never go back to loving movies, no matter what stories or stars Hollywood comes up with. By his lights, the movies are apparently doomed to a long, irreversible decline.
Hollywood has what I think is a more sensible view of new media. Games, cell phones, websites, and all the platforms to come are ways of selling variants of the same material. Film plots are valuable not just as the basis for movies but because they are intellectual property that can be sold on DVD, pay-per-view, and soon, over the internet. They can be adapted into video games, music videos, and even old media products like graphic novels and board games.
Not only Hollywood but the new media industries have already analyzed the changing situation and come up with new approaches to dealing it. Check out IBM’s new Navigating the media divide: Innovating and enabling new business models. Those models include “Walled communities,” “Traditional media,” “New platform aggregation,” and “Content hyper-syndication,” which, the authors predict, “will likely coexist for the mid term.”
In other words, traditional media like the cinema aren’t dying out. No art form that has been devised across the history of humanity has disappeared. Movies didn’t kill theater, and TV didn’t kill movies. It’s highly significant that the main components of new media—computers, gaming consoles, and the internet—have all added features that allow us to watch movies on them.
The big movies still get more press coverage than the big videogames partly because they usually are the source of the whole string of products. If a movie doesn’t sell well, it’s likely that its videogame and its DVD and all its other ancillaries won’t either. That is a key word, for many of the new media that Gabler mentions produce the ancillaries revolving around a movie. So far, very few movies are themselves ancillary to anything generated with new media. If you doubt that, check out Box Office Mojo’s chart of films based on videogames, which contains all of 22 entries made since 1989.
One final point. Film festivals are springing up like weeds around the world. Enthusiasts travel long distances to attend them. That’s devotion to movies. From last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, add 26,000 tickets sold to that 1.5 billion attendance figure.
Movies still matter enormously to many people. New media have given them new ways to reach us, and us new ways to explore why they matter.