You there! Yeah, you. Why aren’t you at the movies? Why are you sitting on your duff, reading this magazine, when you ought to be sitting on your duff, helping Cinderella Man recoup its debts? Why are you popping your own cut-rate corn and shuffling your Netflix queue instead of venturing out to the theater? And on the increasingly rare occasions you do resort to the silver screen, why are you giving your money to penguins while movie stars go starving? Why, in short, do you hate America — or, at least, that most American of plexes, the multiplex?
We know why…because you told us. A recent poll on EW.com reveals the painfully obvious: Theater patrons are fed up with high prices, noisy fellow patrons, and those %$#@* Fantanas. No news flash there. Since the close of moviegoing’s golden age in the 1940s, people have been Norma Desmonding about the decline of the cinema experience. Forty percent of you say it ain’t what it used to be a decade ago, and our guess is the same 40 percent would’ve said the same thing in 1955. This year is no exception, but there’s one important difference: You’re doing something about it. For 19 weekends (through July 10), you, Joe and Jane Moviegoer, held Hollywood hostage, choking off its precious gains over last year’s totals. Your boycott resulted in a box office decline of more than 7 percent compared to this time last year — and continued a slide in overall attendance that’s been in effect since the record year of 2002. Happy now, you little Bolsheviks?
Granted, the depth, the duration, and even the existence of the recent box office slump are a matter of constant, elliptical debate. Some claim it’s merely a numerical illusion, with the numbers hopelessly warped by the surprise indie success of last year’s Passion of the Christ, one of the most popular movies ever made. Others point to the omission of Wednesday and Thursday totals in year-to-year weekend comparisons. (Three sizable hits, War of the Worlds, Batman Begins, and Star Wars, had monster Wednesday or Thursday openings.) But even the sunny-siders agree that moviegoing is changing. There’s a perfect storm gathering around the silver screen, a confluence of three major factors: (1) an increasingly fed-up public, dubious of both Hollywood’s cookie-cutter flicks and the value of seeing them in theaters; (2) ever-expanding entertainment alternatives — on-demand TV, cable with DVR and a 1,000-channel range, and wide-screen, surround-sound DVD; and (3) economics, the dark sorcery that demands you happily consume 20 minutes of preshow ads, without which your $6.40 movie ticket (the national average) would be even more expensive. Combined, these ill winds create a maelstrom that’s buffeting the exhibition biz on all sides.
Some things are undeniable. DVD continues to encroach on theatrical windows. Many people now prefer a night at the home theater to cashing in their 401(k)s for a box of Junior Mints while bathing in the blue glow of other people’s text messages. Fully half of our poll respondents claim their choice — DVD or theater — depends on the theater-worthiness of the movie, which is another way of saying DVD is the default, moviegoing the exception. But does all this mean the last picture show is nigh? Steven Spielberg, please, give us a comforting vision of the future! ”Movie theaters aren’t ever going to disappear,” says the father of the modern blockbuster, ”but we may someday have fewer theaters. You’ll see ticket prices at an all-time high. It will almost be like going to see a Broadway show.” That’s $100, folks — without even the possibility of seeing Liza Minnelli break a hip right in front of you. How did it come to this?