Movie ticket sales, according an end-of-summer piece in the Los Angeles Times, are the lowest they’ve been in 25 years. Studios are flailing, theater chains are panicking as everyone looks to find the one key cause they can work to overcome. The quality of the movies, economic conditions in the U.S., poor reviews, bad word of mouth, increased competition from streaming video and more are all being rounded up as the usual suspects. A few big hits, the story points out, haven’t evened out the impact of a number of costly flops.
Looking over the list of titles released since the beginning of May, which of late has marked the opening of the summer movie season, I can’t help but be struck by the disappearance and slide into obscurity of mid-tier films. With a few exceptions such as The Big Sick, Girls Trip and Baby Driver, none of the original (meaning not a sequel, remake or otherwise based on existing IP) movies released in the last five months made a big impact at the box-office. So many movies that were well-received by critics simply failed to connect with audiences.
Let’s put aside for a moment the idea that Hollywood is actively ignoring that middle ground of movies, the ones that aren’t true indies but also aren’t sci-fi blockbuster sequels to movies that last were in theaters in 1989. The entire rest of the system seems almost specifically designed to keep anything not featuring a comic book character out of the hands of the general public.
First there’s the media. Not to cast aspersions or paint with too broad a brush, but the current media environment doesn’t reward deep dives into obscure films from first time directors and starring a cast known to only a few. It’s a self-reinforcing cycle that requires making broad appeals to the audience to get as many clicks as possible from Facebook users because outlets are just trying to survive the current fiscal quarter.
That’s why there were about six stories all-told for Lady Macbeth but every comment by the Star Wars: The Last Jedi cast is picked apart in a series of five stories on thousands of websites, including national news magazines that really should have more important things to cover. It’s just hard for smaller movies to break through the layer of noise created by bigger releases and the media who see those films translating into ad revenue.
Second, there’s the theaters themselves. They’ve invested so much money into the best possible presentation of those high-profile films that they’ve neglected the smaller movies. The Hero might have played on a single small screen for a week or two, but that’s not the experience the theaters want to sell the audience. The focus is not simply on going to the movies, it’s seeing the big spectacle movies in the Ultra 4K Dolby Surround Lunar Experience.
Look at how this summer’s movies like Wonder Woman, Dunkirk, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and others have all received IMAX-specific marketing support. It’s not just the movie being sold but a very specific movie-going option that’s meant to be markedly different from the default option, which is staying home and watching whatever you’re binging on Netflix.
The problem with that system is that the current situation, where people are only coming out for the big movies and passing by the smaller releases because they’re not much different from what’s on Netflix or Amazon, is a feature and not a bug. Members of the audience are being told to save their money for the IMAX presentation with the recliner chairs, which cost a little more but is totally unlike what they can get at home. Not only is Paris Can Wait going to be cheaper to watch at home it’s going to be roughly the same experience as the 125-seat auditorium it’s showing on, so waiting isn’t a big deal.
A good marketing campaign can only overcome some of this. It can still present the movie as an attractive product, but there’s no incentive for it to be an option when you have to go out at a time that may not be convenient and is certainly going to be more expensive than iTunes or Redbox. Rare is the exception such as The Big Sick, which was able to become a word-of-mouth hit by attaining social capital, something you had to have seen to be as cool and informed as your friends.
Studios and theaters, with their friends in the entertainment media, have created this model over the last several years. The trick now is to adjust to the realities of a system designed to benefit the few and discard the rest. You can’t complain about a situation where movies are either massive hits or tremendous flops when that’s the situation you contributed to the establishment of.
Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.