This has been roiling around in the back of my brain for a long time. Showmanship in movies is dead, and yet the one thing that needs to return to movies is showmanship. Hollywood has decided that the only people who see movies are 15-year-old boys who like to see explosions and special effects. Production values, story, presentation, acting, etc… they don’t matter.
Don’t believe me? Andy Hendrickson, a Disney executive, admitted it last month.
This reminds me of Merian C. Cooper, who went through draft after draft of the screenplay to King Kong until he got it exactly the way he wanted it. When Cinerama came in, it was Cooper who insisted that it be done right. He knew that Cinerama was so cool that he built it up with a deliberately-too-long intro with Lowell Thomas. He knew if he kept it going long enough, the audience would be wondering what Cinerama was and why it was so interesting. It worked. The opening shots of the roller coaster are still breathtaking.
This is Cinerama blew out all records and was the top grossing film of 1952. This was at a time when TV was killing movies, or so they said. Cooper was enough of a showman to make it work.
Sadly, those days are gone. Even as late as the 1970s, we occasionally had “road shows” in which the studios allowed only one theater to run a particular film that was shown carefully and well. There was but one theater running Star Wars when it came out in Indianapolis in the 1970s, and it ran there for a year. It was run properly; it was an event. If you wanted to see it, then you’d see it there.
Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, 2001, and many others were given deluxe road-show treatments. Columbia revived the practice briefly when Lawrence was restored in 1989, making that an event as well. It worked, and people came out to see it.
Movies are never an event anymore. They are a commodity. Where once you could go into a clean theater and see a movie run by a trained projectionist, today we have an untrained teenager starting a projector he doesn’t understand, in the midst of an unclean theater, ripped screen, and people chattering endlessly on cell phones.
Focus? Sometimes. Framing? Usually. Oh, and you tell me that the digital revolution will make things better, eliminating the untrained projectionist? Nope. Whereas the old projectors were workhorses and would run continuously for years, the new digital ones are so persnickety that vapors of popcorn oil cause them to start projecting with a green cast and then shut down.
Hollywood has figured out that there seems to be an endless hunger for movies, and they turn out more and more of them with dumber and dumber plots. The idea is that no one sees films in a theater anymore, and that films need to be made for multiple viewings on handheld devices and small-screen friendly.
So if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean 40 times at home, you might figure out the plot. Oh, rapture. But heaven help you if you see it just once in a theater.
There’s an old saying that applies here. “Some people know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” Hollywood is doing the same thing. They are making more and more movies with less and less money, fewer and fewer viewers per film. The day will come when everyone has free films with zero quality.
This shouldn’t be.
Hollywood is digging its own grave. They are killing off theatrical exhibition by killing off the reasons why people go to movies. They’ve been doing it for years. When fewer people started going to movies, their response was to raise ticket prices. The theater owners had to get by on less money. Do you know why you pay more than $5 for a small popcorn? That’s because the theater owner pays 90+ percent of the ticket money back to the studio for a new release.
The studios also got the cute idea of making exclusive contracts for movies. You’d have to sign up for a particular title for six weeks. If it was a dud, then you were stuck with it. Theater owners made multiplexes so they were able to shuffle duds off to small screens in the back and get the good titles in the bigger houses.
Single-screen theaters died. They couldn’t compete.
Once they had multiplexes, they got automation. One projectionist could run 15 screens. There once was a day when the projectionist had to be there during the entire film, so that if something went wrong, he’d see it immediately. Now, we’re lucky if he has time to get there within 15 minutes. With digital projection, there’s no one up there at all, and the guy who can fix it is probably in the next county. Heaven help you if the lamp blows. Come back next week.
All of this cost-cutting is also throat-cutting. Corporations assume people are stupid and will put up with anything. They’re not. People realize they’re getting a sub-standard product and they don’t show up.
This is the long-standing contradiction that is Hollywood. There’s a disconnect between art and commerce. Art is stagnant if you do the same things over and over again. But commerce encourages sameness. When you can make the same thing repeatedly, you can make it cheaper and more efficiently.
So art is suffering these days because commerce is winning. What Hollywood hasn’t figured out is that people respond to the art.
Movies aren’t like McDonald’s, no matter how much we’d like to make them like that. When you’re out driving at midnight, tired and hungry, you can always stop at McDonald’s, and you know what you’re getting. It tastes the same no matter where you go. It’s almost comforting in a way, even though it’s not something you would want to do all the time.
On the flip side, movies are boring if they’re too repetitive. Clint Eastwood says that every year he’s asked to do another Dirty Harry movie, and yet he’s now 80. That doesn’t matter, they say. People will come to see it. And Clint won’t do it because he knows it wouldn’t be any good.
The other quality vs. showmanship battle that I fight is over DVD, or even worse, downloaded movies. I’ll say it now: if you can avoid it, then you should never show DVDs on a big screen. They’re not designed for that. Blu-ray is better but still not very good. Hollywood is using projectors better than blu-ray on all of the digital setups, so even they understand that they can’t get by with it.
But I work with a lot of small theaters who want to cut costs. They’ll tell me that they have no money, and ask what I can do to help. I bring in good prints of uncopyrighted movies, things I’ve collected over the years, and I introduce the films.
Usually I can bring in a decent crowd for a special event movie. Seeing this, a few places have gotten the idea to cut me out of it. Let’s not pay that guy for good prints. Let’s not pay him to tell people why this film is interesting. I can buy a DVD or download something free from archive.org and then we can run something for free.
No one shows up, and it confuses them.
Anyone can buy a DVD or download from archive.org. It’s no longer an an event, nothing special. People are smart to see through that and don’t show up.
I do see glimmers of hope on the horizon. Kevin Smith, of all people, has seen that doing road shows, with cast members in attendance, is probably a good tactic. His new film, Red State, is doing city-by-city shows. Ticket prices are higher, and he’s taken criticism for it, but he’s sticking with it.
I think that, if theatrical exhibition is going to survive, then it will be with higher quality shows that are special events. Kevin Smith is on to something.
Another failing is the persistent idea that only 15-year-old boys show up to movies. Well, when we tailor all movies to 15-year-olds, then that’s who shows up. Teenagers are an automatic audience for movies, because they want to leave the house. You want to attract an older audience? There’s one out there.
Here’s how you do it…
- Enact a “no cell phone” policy in theaters and stick to it.
- Hire an usher for every theater who has the ability to force noisemakers to leave.
- Movies that have a plot are your friends. Bring them back. That doesn’t mean boring, but it means they have to make sense.
- Stars are your friends. Build up stars and hire people who can act. Stars are not people who show up a lot on TMZ. Johnny Depp opens movies because he’s a good actor. Jason Statham is simply a guy who can take a beating during the course of an action film.
- Clean the theaters after each showing.
- Partner with local restaurants so that folks can get out, have dinner, and see a movie.
People don’t see movies anymore because it’s too much work, and they perceive it as too expensive. Make it easier for them to do it, and make it worth their while, and they’ll show up.
What this world needs is more showmen like Merian C. Cooper. What this world needs less is more cynical businessmen like Andy Hendrickson.
Thinking like Cooper will save the movies. Thinking like Hendrickson will kill them.