MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

GROSS BEHAVIOR: Sound and Fury…

The 2011 domestic box office clocked in at $10.23 billion (see below) and it represented a 4% decline from the prior year. It also translated into approximately 6% erosion in the number of actual tickets bought by folks in the U.S., Canada, Puerto Rico, Guam and a trickle of other geographic dots that comprise this sector of the marketplace.

Considering everything else going on in the economy these are hardly alarming statistics … at least when viewed on a superficial basis.

In fact when one looks at movie going statistics covering the past three decades, the trend is one of slow, steady erosion with one or two hiccups along the road. Box office growth is largely fueled by increases in the cost of a movie ticket that don’t quite compensate for the people unwilling to carry that freight.

What was significant in 2011 was that the bedrock of ticket buyers for the past 30 years – the core group that have influenced the movies produced by the majors – suddenly opted out of the equation. That group, comprised largely of males aged 18 to 25 years of age, were the dominate factor of what’s known in the industry as “the avids.” They’re the folk that not only go to the multiplex most often but also are likely to buy a ticket on a picture’s opening weekend.

They didn’t evaporate, but a sizeable portion began to migrate to other entertainment options. There are a lot of other options encompassing sport, music and other social activities and the avids explored those alternatives rather than simply cocooning. There are also a myriad of more economic methods and platforms for viewing movies that have evolved in recent years, if you’re willing to wait a month or two.

The big question is: will this group return or are we seeing a cultural shift that will affect what and how we see movies in the future?

The best answer is unquestionably that it largely doesn’t matter. In the past month there have been demonstrations of a returning younger audience that no one honestly can say will continue or once again fizzle out.  Regardless, the movie industry doesn’t want to rely too heavily on a particular segment of the population for its future.

The reason for this, albeit tacitly, is that movie going is unquestionably destined to become the opera of the future. By that I mean that the 18th century’s favorite form of entertainment still exists but it long ago ceded its vaunted position. The movies today cannot compete with television and that diversion abetted by home entertainment has had the biggest impact on the Seventh Art since its debut circa 1896.

The introduction of home video in the 1980s changed the equation for not only Hollywood but the majors of Europe, Asia and the rest of the world. It turned the theatrical feature into the hardcover book so to speak. The ancillaries grew into the largest revenue stream for movie producers. The domestic theatrical portion of the big movie picture today accounts for about 22% of a motion picture’s revenue on average.

And, just to blur the image further, the revenue return for theatrical (domestic or international) is far inferior to any other form of exploitation whether it be disc, broadcast or merchandize.

So, figuratively speaking (and often literally) theatrical exhibition has become the distribution sector’s loss leader. However, it fuels all those other elements that transform it into America’s most exportable and profitable industry.

What the U.S. majors would really like is to be able to control both the product and its placement. But the Supreme Court decided in the so-called Paramount Decree of 1948 that studios developing and creating movies were in violation of anti-trust laws by simultaneously owning and operating the means of access to that product. So, they divested their movie theaters and there’s subsequently been an uneasy relationship between seller and buyer.

In that festering environment it comes as no surprise that the majors would love it if they could make movies that didn’t have to be played in the traditional fashion and still make gobs of money. As yet no one’s figured out the formula for such a scenario. But what has occurred is considerable tinkering to create a new balance that shortens the theatrical window without damaging the ancillary money stream. It’s rather like alchemy as not all movies are created equally.

But the tinkering will unquestionably continue and theater owners will also venture into new areas that make them less dependent on the wares of major providers. A few weeks back the top film in America was The Grey, a thriller distributed by a company bankrolled by the country’s two largest movie circuits. We can also expect more alternative fare like live music and sporting events and, for die hards, Live from the Met the great operas that refused to die when the interloping Lumieres and Edison arrived on the scene.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon