What future for films and cinemas?
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part column on the future of cinema. The second part, devoted to the place of independent cinemas, will take place in two weeks.
Over the past year and a half, I have done my best to remain optimistic about the movies and the theater experience.
Making a movie is expensive these days. Running a movie theater is expensive. When I see movies it is usually during the day and I often have no problem socializing as I might be the only person in a cavernous, well air conditioned auditorium.
Is it sustainable? The pandemic is only continuing, preventing any revival of the film industry.
Rather than just pontificating, I reached out to someone who writes about it for a living. Scott Mendelson is a film critic and box office expert for Forbes magazine. He’s also, perhaps, the most knowledgeable commentator today working on ticket sales, movie budgets, and what it all means.
His Twitter handle is @scottmendelson. Since he sat down with me and talked for almost an hour with nothing in return, sending a few new subscribers his way is the least I can do.
He speaks fast. I speak fast. I did my best to compress our conversation for the allotted space.
Owen: Are you worried about movie theaters?
Mendelson: More than I was before the pandemic. In 2014-15, moviegoers went to the movies just to see movies. They were watching romantic comedies or dramas or whatever was going on. They weren’t looking for âoriginalityâ or what people are saying now. They just liked movie stars and watched whatever was shown to them.
But then, with streaming, those same casual moviegoers started getting that casual content elsewhere. When casual content moved, people moved. At the same time, you saw franchises like “Transformers” which still attracted people to the movies. Now we’re still in the trend where franchises and intellectual property are the reason people go to the movies.
Owen: Why are superhero movies so prevalent in this space now?
Mendelson: This trend that I mentioned has led to the creation of characters becoming movie stars. Harry Potter is a movie star. Batman is a movie star. What superhero movies have done smart is “take ownership of the genre.” They would market “Logan” as a classic western but … also a comic book movie !. âGuardians of the Galaxy is ‘Star Trek’ butâ¦ Marvel!
You get two for one. What’s going on is superheroes have taken over the big blockbuster market. Hollywood responded by moving closer to the superhero movie. By doing this, the redesigns look like generic movies. Like “Solo”, it’s Star Wars … but a superhero movie. Why do you see a generic action movie adapting a classic story like King Arthur, for example, it’s a bit like a superhero movie when you can see a real superhero movie?
Plus, we also have an audience because adults really love movies that would otherwise be aimed at kids.
Owen: Geek culture?
Mendelson: Well, they want kids’ movies to match their adult tastes. Because movies like “Joker” use styles and ideas from older movies or independent movies. The mass of moviegoers don’t even need to see those other movies now.
Which seems frustrating because with streaming all those older movies or indie movies are more accessible than ever. This is just not what young people are doing. I was obsessed with movies as a kid, but I was the exception. The captain of the football team did not watch “Pulp Fiction” and the binging movies released 27 years ago. He wasn’t going to praise “Guess who’s coming to dinner.”
(Funny aside: “Pulp Fiction” came out 27 years ago in October.)
Owen: So if you’re less optimistic about movie theaters with the pandemic, how do movie theaters survive?
Mendelson: Now you can have a safe experience in a theater. Movie theaters operate at “rush hour”. If you see a movie at noon, you can easily distance yourself socially. But that’s only for people with time during the day.
The grim timeline for theaters is going to come faster, and that’s not necessarily linked to the pandemic. I compare it to video arcades. In the early 1990s, the arcades were brighter and better than what you could do at home. Then the console got as good, if not better, than a video arcade. Then overnight, the video arcade died. Now, arcades exist with immersive experiences. You can play a video game, but you are, for example, in a pivoting car.
Now you can get better experience while watching movie at home. No more prestigious projects. Bigger movie stars. Unless you want to watch something immersive like a superhero movie.
Owen: There’s a new arcade in our town where you can buy alcohol. Maybe all theaters, like Alamo, will have to offer food and drink?
Mendelson: Yes, with Alamo there is an implied promise that you will get a quality experience. But there is a problem of truth in advertising here. This theater must ensure that it is a quality experience. Silence people, kick people out. In addition, theaters will get most of their money from concessions. But the price of food and drink is increasing. The tickets go up. Salaries are not.
Owen: What should the theater industry do?
Mendelson: If I were the studios, I would donate money to the theaters to improve the experience of each theater. Improve the sound system. Provide better quality and brighter projectors. You need efficient lighting. Make sure the movie theaters give you a better experience than you get at home. Because now it’s a draw as to whether you should see a movie in the theaters or wait a month before you can rent it.
(Writer’s Note: One topic that came up in our conversation is independent theater. Cinemas like Ragtag Cinema can accept donations and receive grants due to their non-profit status. But what will they be able to play? ? In a few weeks, our column will take a look at what’s in store for the future of your local art house.)
In real life, James Owen is a lawyer and executive director of the Renew Missouri energy policy group. He created / wrote for Filmsnobs.com from 2001 to 2007 before becoming an on-air film critic for KY3, NBC’s Springfield affiliate. He was named one of the Top 20 Artists Under 30 by the Kansas City Star when he was much younger than he is now.