At the end of the week, I sit down at my dining room table and start typing. Usually, these articles which I post are the result of something that has happened in this business, an email or a call from an industry professional. This week it is a bit of both.
Like many of you, I watched the Oscars broadcast. I did so this year reluctantly. I felt guilty that I had a diminished interest in it this year. I thought the movies were lacking and with the exception of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (which I really liked) they all felt diminished from past years. I turned off the broadcast after ninety minutes. I went and did something else. My curiosity got the better of me and I turned it back on only to see a Korean language movie win Best Director and Best Picture. While I was touched by the joy showed by the Korean cast and crew who accepted the awards, it really got me thinking. I witnessed the exuberance of the winners on stage and how they realized the significance of what had just happened.. Frankly, I was a bit stunned and really began to think about how we got here.
It was a bad awards season as Netflix gambled, and gambled big on financing “The Irishman”. Martin Scorsese’s picture was nominated for ten Oscars, “Marriage Story” was nominated for six. Only one Oscar won by Laura Dern for Best Supporting Actress for“Marriage Story” and they one another Oscar for a documentary produced by Barack Obama. Netflix was nominated twenty-four times and totally dominated the nominations. They won two. This was a total repudiation of Netflix’s attempt to give itself motion picture relevance. Their inherent pathological need to hold that golden statue and hear themselves thanked was palpable. They were St. George and the movie industry was the dragon. The dragon won. An $11 million dollar Korean language movie held the day. The members of Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences declared their independence and in an act that crowed defiance, actually voted for the best picture. That hasn’t happened in a very long while. It was a gust of wind that arrives during a very hot and still day. Something had changed and I suspect for the good.
The next day I received a couple of emails from two theater owners, sharing their thoughts with me on what was wrong with the movies. I love getting these kinds of emails because I readily admit I write primarily from my perspective and I enjoy deeply being able to see issues from the perspective of others. The first theater told me that with Disney now asking for sixty-five percent and demanding hold periods, he was no longer able to make any money. He told me that he had no choice but to look at turning his theater into a community movie theater and run it under the auspices of a 5013(c) not for profit. He wrote that he had no choice if he wanted to maintain the tradition of movie-going in his town. He said that Disney had made this decision for him and he had two choices, close or evolve into a community-run operation. I am starting to get quite a few of these emails telling a similar story.
The next email was of a different sort. This was from an owner whom I have known for a while and I respected. I had written him some time back and asked him a simple question “What do you think at the core is wrong with the business of movie exhibition”. He must have thought about it for quite a while. His reply was concise, thoughtful and very truthful. While he did mention the economic pressures and the terms being forced on him, he came down to a very simple statement. He stated the following, “I think I could deal with the rising rentals, the hold periods but what I can’t deal with is the simple fact the movies are just not very good these days.”
That hit me and hit me hard. At the core of this business lies storytelling, and this wise theater owner was telling me that the storytelling was no longer compelling and as a result, the audience was not coming to the movies. I think he may be right.
At first, the media conglomerates (remember there really are no more studios left) set their eyes on China. In order to appeal to China, they changed the story structure, got rid of the Americanisms, started including a Chinese tradition of story structure and even started casting Chinese stars in leads. For a couple of years, the Chinese embraced these movies. The Chinese government used these movies to prime their own pump. The gold coming out of China was not to be. In the meantime, the American audience began to wonder what happened to their movies. They felt that Hollywood had abandoned American and now they decided to return the favor.
No matter what they tell you, here is a simple truth. The top ten movie champs at the box office adjusted for inflation, look like this.
‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939)
‘Star Wars’ (1977)
‘Avengers: Endgame’ (2019)
‘The Sound of Music’ (1965)
“E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial’ (1982)
‘The Ten Commandments’ (1956)
‘Doctor Zhivago’ (1965)
‘Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens’ (2015)
Here is the skinny, the audience has not gone away, they are there and but are purposefully staying away in droves until they get what they want. While we do have some mega-blockbusters, the attempts by the studios to consistently hit them out of the park have eroded and almost destroyed the storytelling ecosystem. The movies that they make for the most part are not engaging the audience, and the audience has said time and time again that the storytelling is repetitive. Audiences are voting with their lack of attendance. In order to have a truly vital market, you need a variety of dynamic diverse products. The audience needs to know that the people who make the movies are listening to what they want. Hollywood is not and the audience is returning the favor.
What is fascinating though is that I think the creative community who makes the movies are equally being stymied as the theater owners. They want to tell story that can reach and impact an audience but are consistently being thwarted by their corporate handlers. The media conglomerate is trying to rule with actuarial tables but is failing miserably. Something is brewing, a rebellion against the process, a rebellion against the corporate bodies that are coming between the American people and their stories. I think the Academy Awards signaled a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is going to change. It has happened before and the movies were rescued by the rise of groundbreaking movies starting with Easy Rider in 1969 and finishing with Star Wars.
It is going to get very interesting and we are going to be in for a bumpy ride.