Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Is Your Movie Ticket a Vote for Lousy Cinema?

Summer movie season is upon us again. And, as has been the case off and on in years past, I find myself almost paralyzed with boredom by the offering of films this year. Yeah, sure, there’s a few movies that look interesting, and even a couple that look definitely worthwhile. But the majority of films coming out this summer have little appeal to me, or at least don’t seem worth paying the price of a first run movie theater ticket to see them. Now that’s just my opinion.

All the same, if you watch movies at all, and most Americans do, you’ve seen your fair share of films you found disappointing. What’s more, I’m positive you’ve seen trailers to films and have thought something along the lines of: “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe THAT got made! Why would I ever waste time watching that?”

So, let’s explore a couple of theories about why bad films get made. Well, these are really two ideas that combine in my view to form a sort of market driven theory of bad cinema.

The first idea is something you may have read on this blog before. It’s simple really. It’s more of an observation than a theory. It is the idea that basically something along the lines of 80% of anything produced in large quantity is lousy. Now, obviously, this doesn’t apply to a specific item, like a particular model of automobile. But when it comes to unique items, especially things that involve a lot of creativity, talent, and good taste, most such things miss the mark of excellence. Consider the number of books in any book store. Are even 50% of those books something you might consider worth the time it would take to read them? Chances are no. In fact, the actual percentage is probably far lower!

You can say the same about music, works of art, TV shows, video games, oratory presentations, and movies. It seems, to me at least, that this is the case particularly when it comes to the types of things that are significantly dominated by industry. Once the focus shifts away from mere creativity and more strongly to making money, I think there’s a definite increase in lousy creative choices made by the people seeking to create such works, especially when such works involve not just one person, but a committee of people. In the studio system in Hollywood, where money is definitely a major concern ... correction, 99% of the time it is THE concern ... this is a significant issue.

So yes, I do think that a natural byproduct of the film “industry” is that honestly most films made are actually quite lousy. Now, I feel I must point out I’m not some sort of artsy-fartsy avant-garde guy who only likes movies that look like David Lynch’s Eraserhead. On the contrary, I’m a firm believer in the intersection of art and pop culture. Most of what we admire as great classic works of art now where once in fact part of the popular culture of its day. So, I definitely don’t want to sound like I’m poo-pooing all forms of popular expressions of art.

Now, having said that ... most film trailers I see do seem to land in the category of films I’ll never bother to watch. And I watch a lot of films (admittedly, I watch a lot of trailers too). In my view, most movies are this way not because I have an insanely and unreasonably discriminating taste in films, but because most are genuinely not that good. It’s part of my theory here that at least 80% of all movies are just frankly ... not that good.

Now, I should point out again, I am a film lover! The five to ten percent of films that come out each year that I greatly enjoy make it all worthwhile for me. They are gems worth seeking after! So, as I’ve said before, just because 80% of the offering of a particular medium are lousy, this does not mean we should abandon that medium. That’s like saying that because so few paintings can be “Starry Night,” we should as a society give up on painting as an art form. Absolutely not!

Now, if at least 80% of films aren’t good, then is all hope lost that more films can’t be better? Are we doomed to having at best only 20% (keep in mind these are just rough round numbers) of all films that good, with an even smaller percentage of those that are truly great?

I want to say no.

Which leads me to my second theory. If the film industry is in fact an industry, it does indeed concern itself significantly (even primarily) with making money, then what kinds of movies make money clearly must affect the subsequent kinds of movies that will get made in the future.

Just think about it: Say I own a business--a restaurant. I make pizza. But my pizza isn’t very good. Obviously business is not going well. But now, say I discover that instead of pizza, my cooks are excellent at making magnificent chocolate cake. In fact, the chocolate cake they make is just out of this world fantastic. We start serving it at my restaurant. People rave and start coming in just to get some cake. It would be completely foolish of me to insist on being a pizza joint that just happens to make excellent cake and continue to only make a few cakes each day. My business will do much better if I make the switch to focusing on cakes and get the word out about this, not my pizza. In fact, I bet my cooks that make great chocolate cake also make other amazing cakes as well. And if it’s what people want, I stand to make a significantly better profit than I ever could selling second rate pizza. You see where I’m going?

So we have two key factors: what people want, and how well I can deliver that.

Now imagine if I make lousy pizza at my fictional restaurant but for some reason people in my neighborhood keep buying it. What motivation do I have to change? None. My system works. I mean, even if in theory I could make more money selling cake, is that a risk I’m willing to take when my crappy pizza is doing just fine? I think you know the choice most businesses will make in a scenario like this.

Hollywood is no different.

So here’s the part where we can come in to the system and actually have an affect. Business is predicated on people paying for something (a service, a good, a ... you get it). In the case of theatrical films ... paying for movie tickets. In particular, studios are quite concerned with opening weekend box office. In fact, the obsession with opening weekend box office is so big that studio executives in Los Angeles will hold their breath as a large scale and very expensive film that needs to sell hundreds of thousands of tickets to actually make a profit opens on the East Coast. With anticipation, they watch ticket sales in those first few hours of Friday evening on the East Coast. By the time it’s eight or nine that night in New York City (that first day of the film’s opening), a film can be declared a failure. That means, before the clock strikes 6:00 PM in LA, the film can be considered already a flop.

Movies that don’t fare well that first and second weekend run the risk of being pulled from theaters in subsequent weeks. Why? Well, theater owners need to make way for other potentially more profitable films. If a film isn’t bringing in an audience, theater owners are going to want to put something on that screen that will draw an audience. Simple economics, really!

But when a film is brining in loads of people each week, that’s a film sure to keep playing. As long a its selling tickets, no theater wants to get rid of it. Now, there are those rare films that manage to even gain more theatrical distribution because theaters showing a particular film keep selling out and other multiplex theaters want a piece of that pie! They might start slow and only play in a few theaters, but if ticket sales suddenly jump, good things can happen for that film. Along with great review and the all illusive but so powerful “good-word-of-mouth,” a film that starts humbly on only a few screens can grow to national distribution. This happened with My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But, before we get all excited about that, we have to note that these films are the definite exception to the rule. They’re not just rare. They’re practically unheard of.

Lets take a normal Hollywood summer film. An action film. It manages to do well, it makes good money. And maybe it deserves it. Maybe it was quite entertaining and even intelligent. It deserves its success. The people who created this film, or at lease financed it, are going to be pleased. And of course, they’d like to repeat that! So they want to take what they believe worked about that film and they’re going to want to repeat that. But not just them ... other people in the industry will want to as well. Especially when a film is a really big success.

This is how trends get started. What’s hot right now? Vampires. Just look at Twilight and True Blood. So along comes ABC with their carbon copy, The Gates. Only ... the thing about carbon copies is that they’re never as good as the original.* That is not to say that seizing what works about a particular film and seeking to make more films that contain those winning qualities is a bad idea. It’s about how it is done. In other words, instead of just trying to make “another Dark Knight,” filmmakers (and audiences) are better served trying to identify the things that have drawn such audiences in to that particular film in the first place. What got them to tell all their friends to go see it the following weekend, and the weekend after that. What is it that actually drives people watch a movie and then the next week drop what their doing and actually pay full price to see it again (I think the last movie I did this with was Children of Men). A more careful analysis is required to figure these things out. And I suspect that ultimately you can’t just look at one film, but what is working for several films. Then try to see what’s the common themes or elements that might be connecting so well with audiences.

This is a lot of work, for sure. But the results can be very worthwhile. In the end, the filmmaker can walk away understanding what audiences are drawn to and why it might be worth while making something new that taps into those elements.

But, really, most often we end up with a diluted product. If it flops, the trend is dead. If it succeeds, however, the trend lives on, possibly growing even stronger.

In other words, there are plenty of movies that come out each year (often sequels to movies I thought were a waste of time the first time around) that are just diluted junk. But as long as there are people willing to pay good money to go see the movies in large enough numbers, such movies keep being made. If I had the space here, I might even explore the idea that too often young audiences just like what they’re told to like by clever marketing.

But what I am focused on here is this: when you buy a ticket for a movie it is in fact a way of casting a vote. That vote in essence is saying, “Yes, make more movies like this. I’m willing to pay to see movies like this.”

Now, the flip side of that is true as well. Don’t bother to go see a film, and its a way--in principle at least--of saying, “No, don’t waste any more time or money on stuff like that. I’m not interested.”

Uh-oh. Does that suddenly add some weightiness to our movie going habits? Well, maybe it should.

Now to what degree, that’s something no one can determine for you. That’s a matter of personal taste and conscious choice. Of course, keep in mind that sometimes you’re going to buy a ticket to see a film, and it will turn out to be a huge disappointment because the film appeared genuinely good when you saw a trailer or a friend told you about it. But upon watching it you find it is in fact quite a hackneyed second rate movie. That’s a risk you take when you buy a movie ticket. But really, that’s a risk you take with any purchase.

But again, how much should we be thinking of our movie ticket purchase as a vote? I argue that this type of thinking should factor in for those of us who do make it a regular part of our lives to head out to a movie on a weekend. After all, if we don’t particularly like the films being offered to us, but we shell out the money to see those films anyway ... we are helping to perpetuate the creation of more lousy films. We really have no one else to blame, folks.

Again, the flips side of this is so very true as well. We might hear of a film that looks like exactly the type of thing we’d really enjoy seeing. But maybe it’s a film with a more limited release and not as big of a marketing budget as many other films offered to us by the large studios. And we think to ourselves, “Oh, I’d like to see that.” But the movie comes out, and we’re busy, and we forget, and the next weekend, we don’t get around to it ... and before we know it, it’s gone. It’s no longer playing in any local theaters. Not enough people went to see it, and the local theater dropped it in favor of something that will sell more tickets and popcorn. It’s a blip on the radar. Forgotten almost instantly by the film industry.

Why is this? Well, that’s because the industry is still primarily concerned with first run box office receipts. Which means that while some movies do take off and have a great life in home video form as rental and/or sales, the big money the industry is really looking at is box office, and specifically that opening weekend.

I also hear periodically form people something along the lines of, “Oh that movie looks really good. Maybe I’ll go watch it when it hits the ‘dollar theater.’” Now, for those of you who don’t know what a “dollar theater” is, that’s a theater that plays what is referred to in the film industry as “second run films.” These are films that have already had their shot at first run, full price theaters, and are now being shown (usually months later) for a significant discount (it used to be a dollar, but few places actually charge only one dollar these days). The city I live in now used to have such a theater. It went out of business long before I moved here. Too bad, because I really do like going the movies and spending less money.

Which brings up a good point. I, just like anyone else, want a good bargain! We all need to save money. We all need to choose what is a priority and was isn’t as far as what we’re willing to pay for. And for many movies, seeing it in a “second run theater” or renting it on DVD is probably a good idea. I don’t want anyone to think I’m not advocating frugality. Like I said, most of what comes out isn’t all that great anyway, and if you think it might end up just being “okay at best” instead of “fantastic,” than you’re better off waiting to see it when its cheaper to do so. That is in fact a very smart move!

But here’s the lesson: When we do head out and catch that brand new movie that’s coming out this weekend, or maybe just came out last weekend, do we ever think beyond the next two hours and ten or fifteen dollars of our lives?

I often hear people complain about how many lousy movies come out each year. But when I ask them if they went to see a particular film that is something I know they would greatly enjoy (even a film I know they expressed interest in seeing), the answer is too often ... no. Worse yet, they end saying something like, “Oh, that looks great! I really want to see it. Can’t wait to rent it.”

And I cringe a little when I hear this. I want to scream, “Do you realize that you and everyone else making that same choice is essentially ensuring that fewer films like this will get made? You want better films to come out, but then when they do, you don’t go see them! Meanwhile, movies like the Saw franchise keep making money. So that’s what keeps getting made and shown in theaters, while fantastic and profound films continue to just fall by the wayside!”

Pardon my passion here. But beautiful and profound cinema is something I am passionate about. I think it is something very worthwhile. And it honestly hurts me to see spectacular films like Levity or The New World or Brokedown Palace or Rabbit-Proof Fence fall by the wayside when they could at least be significantly helped out by attentive film audiences making the choice to go watch such films in first run theaters instead of watching the new big studio sequel. Now granted, with some of these films, the distribution companies are as much at fault as any of us when they fail to mount an appropriate marketing strategy. This is one reason why I think Terrence Malick’s fantastic film, The New World, did so poorly. I know people who went to see it thinking it would be an action movie, not a beautifully introspective film. But, unfortunately, a discussion of lousy marketing is not what we’re engaged in here. Maybe a some other time.

If cinema is something we value (and I assume you do or you wouldn’t be reading this ridiculously long blog entry), than we have to be ready at times to put our money where our mouth is. Am I advocating we not be frugal? Again. No! But what I am advocating is that we think more clearly about our box office choices. I for one am sick of movie remakes of things I didn’t really think were that great to begin with. So I’m not heading out to the theaters this summer to see The A-Team.

I am, however, utterly excited about buying my opening night ticket to go see Inception. Is it guaranteed to be an amazing film? No. But everything I’ve seen and heard about it leads me to believe that this is a gamble well worth taking.

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End Notes:
*Here’s where I add my own two cents and declare Twilight a carbon copy of a much more interesting romance between and girl and a vampire ... Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I mean, come on. She’s not just a girl in love with a vampire. She’s the flipppin slayer! But that’s just my nerdy two cents.

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