Thursday, 18 April 2013

Hollywood Babble On & On #1011: Everybody Against Everybody Else!

Cinemacon, the big annual convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners is going on and they're talking some serious business. It's extra serious this year since, despite the occasional upticks, the overall box office is in a seemingly endless decline.

Theatre owners say that the studios are putting out too many R-Rated movies and releasing too many of their blockbusters during the summer and key holidays. The boss of Universal agrees with the theatres about releasing too many during the summer, but blames the overall decline of R-Rated movies on too many "strange" R-Rated movies.  The decline is also making theatres look into alternatives like airing operas and other live events and becoming more like restaurants.

Right now I'm going to talk about how the whole system has devolved to the point where people and institutions that should be working together are instead at each others throats. I'm talking about filmmakers, studios, theatre owners, the MPAA, and the audience.

The theatre owners would like to have more films that are G to PG-13. They have a wider audience than R-Rated movies and generally do better with more repeat customers. It's a basic fact of life.

I get the sense that too many filmmakers like the R-Rating. I suspect there are two reasons for this.

1. Street Cred: Having an R-Rating seems to be treated like some sort of badge of honour, telling the world that the people who made this film is mad, bad and dangerous to know. To go for a PG to PG-13 rating is to be a "sell out," pandering to the censorious urges of corporate philistines who don't get "art."

2. Laziness: This is especially true in comedy, where instead of burning calories trying to come up with something clever and funny, just toss in some boob and dick jokes.

The studios too would like more G to PG-13 movies for the same reasons the theatres like them. They also don't like to spend too much money on R-Rated movies, and aim for a PG-13 sweet spot, but what should be simple has become needlessly complicated thanks to the MPAA's rating system.

The ratings system is dysfunctional and based a lot on whimsy on the part of the board's members, and regularly accused of bias preferring studio films over independent films, and often with cause. 

This means it's next to impossible to figure out exactly what will get a film rated PG-13 or R. Often the ratings board will slap an R on a film but not be able to give any specifics as to why they did it.

This leads to films getting effectively neutered trying to reach that sweet spot, but usually succeeding in only making the entire system seem intellectually, artistically, and morally bankrupt.

Then there's the timing issue.

The major studios are cutting back their output. They're making fewer movies, but want those movies to make the same money, so they're making movies that are bigger, more expensive, and have what they hope is a built in audience. This means lots of big budget comic book movies, special effects heavy epics, and tons of remakes, sequels, prequels, and rehashes.

They also want to hedge their bets by releasing as many of these big films during times of peak audience availability. This means summer, holiday weekends, and other peak times.

This creates a near feast or famine atmosphere in theatres. Veering wildly between big blockbusters, Oscar bait, and near dead zones where the films that the studios don't believe in get dumped.

Now some, like that lad at Universal, know that it is possible to make $100 million in theatres during these so-called "dead zones." The problem is that $100 million is nowhere near enough for many studios to turn a profit on their $150-$250 million budget blockbusters.

So the theatres, which have to run year round, are trapped in a system where most of their profits come during several narrow windows that are literally stuffed like a clown car with each film opening on 2,000 to 4,000 screens at a time. 

Another problem for the theatres is that with so many big movies out at once, and on so many screens simultaneously, some of these big flicks are going to get lost in the shuffle, and some are going to bomb outright. This means that the big chains are, during these narrow windows, stuck with thousands of screens running a movie that has no bums in the seats, and they have nothing to replace it because the studios are slashing their output.

Meanwhile the audience feels like they've been left out of the equation and are staying home watching TV.

These conflicts are pointless and ultimately destructive. The only people in this big fat hostility equation that should be at each other throats are the studios themselves, via market competition. This fighting with filmmakers, theatres, audiences, and even the MPAA is not helping anyone.

What can be done to fix this?

Well, studios could try to go beyond the rather narrow demographic targeting that they're doing now. Hollywood seems to think that there is no middle ground between family films, like Pixar's output, or R-Rated violence or raunch fests. They also need to know that you can make money on films released during quieter times by not spending an ungodly amount of money on the making and the marketing.

The problem is that to accomplish those goals requires some serious calorie burning. That's not something executives looking only at their next quarterly bonus are too keen on trying.

So it's maybe the theatres themselves should do it.

Two chains AMC and Regal have already started Open Road Films, to some mixed success, mostly because they're trying to, in a limited sense, imitate both the major studios and the indie companies that came before them. What they really should be doing is creating a new business model by pursuing the gaps in the movie market more aggressively.

1 comment:

  1. Blast Hardcheese19/4/13 10:25 am

    I'm wondering if there's an opportunity for Netflix here. I've just burned through 'House of Cards' and looooved it. If they cut a deal directly with the theater chains, that might be another avenue for their original content. And not just standard movies, either - what if you did a miniseries-length production like 'Game of Thrones', one new episode every month or so?