January 04, 2012

2011 Box Office Revenues are Down. Here's One Reason Why.

2011 wasn't a great year at the North American box office, and many of the industry sites are explaining why. For a good take, check out Deadline's coverage here.
They provide some answers, but I think one major reason for declining box office keeps getting overlooked. Roger Ebert posted his own take outlining 6 points and singles out what Hollywood is completely ignoring. Here's the one I think is most interesting, and in my opinion something Hollywood and theaters aren't giving enough attention:
3. The theater experience. Moviegoers above 30 are weary of noisy fanboys and girls. The annoyance of talkers has been joined by the plague of cell-phone users, whose bright screens are a distraction. Worse, some texting addicts get mad when told they can't use their cell phones. A theater is reportedly opening which will allow and even bless cell phone usage, although that may be an apocryphal story.
Revenue is down - and keeps going down - because of a handful of reasons that all tie together because the MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCE IS SHIT. It's often a hassle, a stressful ordeal, and we're paying more and more to go through it. That's the common denominator. But let's start at the very top. The most obvious reason, and the reason you're most likely to get if you were to ask someone why they don't go to the movie theater:

There's a lot of crappy product out there. There are plenty of great movies out there, but there's simply too much product (look at December 2011) and the good stuff is drowned out by drivel. By horror sequels, lame romantic comedies and kids movies based on old cartoons, whose advertising campaigns have to share the public's attention with the worthwhile stuff. And for big budget tentpole films, there's a strong reliance on formula that we're getting tired of.

As much as I think it's worse these days, it's always been like this. It's hard for the solid product to stand out, especially with so many alternative forms of entertainment available. So why go through the hassle of going to the theater when there isn't much that stands out and warrants leaving the house? Which brings us to:

Who wants to leave the house when we can watch a movie on our giant TV? Most families now have a big screen HDTV. Yes, the movie will look better in the theater, but the difference in audio/visual quality between seeing a movie in the theater and seeing a movie at home has been significantly reduced in recent years. The days of planting yourself in front of a little black box are over, and we get to watch our movies and TV shows in pristine quality right in the convenience of our own homes.

And who wants to leave the house and stand in line and deal with annoying people when the movie will be on DVD in three months. The home video window is smaller than ever. Tying in to the lack of product that truly stands out as 'must see now', why go through the hassle of seeing a movie at the theater when you can wait a few months and see it at home via Netflix or Video On Demand?

And who wants to leave the house when we have all kinds of other things to do nowadays? Our video games, our internets, our social networking...

Then there's 3D. The coolness factor of 3D has worn off. It's kind of passé. It's not the big deal it once was and most importantly, it's not worth the additional charge for an already expensive movie ticket. The coolness of 3D is now outweighed by the uncoolness of the surcharge. Moviegoers are feeling burned out, and for films that don't give the 'you-must-see-this-in-3D' vibe, the 2D presentations outsold many of the 3D screenings last year. An awful movie will still be awful in 3D, but the sting of dissatisfaction and wasted money that comes with a bad 3D movie will last longer.

Movie ticket prices are expensive enough as it is. In Manhattan it costs $13 to see a movie. Ticket prices keep going up just as our personal financial situations are getting worse. Matinee pricing is rare. Add the highly priced popcorn and soda and nachos and the other gross food products they sell at movie theaters, plus 3D, plus gas/parking/transportation, and a simple trip to the movies for a family of four now looks like eighty or a hundred dollars, if not more. There are plenty of people who still plunk down the money no-problem, even as they're going deeper and deeper in debt. Credit cards make it easy. But there are millions of struggling families who do exercise some responsibility and restraint, and to them the expensive movie tickets are an easy target for budget trimming. Instead, they can watch the same movie a few months later for four dollars or less.

All those reasons tie into what I believe is Hollywood's big elephant in the room. (Err, well, they don't really seem to be aware of it at all, so maybe scratch that analogy) It's something to which they're not paying any attention. And even if they did, it's ultimately out of their control. The act of going to the movies - the moviegoing experience - is miserable. Here's why:
  • The economy sucks now and things are in flux. People are on edge. We're irritable, so we're not always very nice to one another. Which makes it tough when we have to sit next to strangers for a few hours.
  • We're communicating with eachother now more than ever... just not in person. Our interpersonal skills aren't getting better. One result of this is that many of us don't know how to behave in public anymore.
  • Manners seem to be out the window. I may sound like a grumpy old man by saying this, but whatever happened to common courtesy and politeness?
  • Our attention spans have shortened. Some of us can't sit through a 90 minute movie without checking our Facebook.
  • And along with that, many of us aren't bothered by the fact that having our bright smartphones turned on disrupts the people sitting next to and behind us.
  • Many of us have a strong feeling of self-importance, perhaps now more than in the past. When someone calls us while we're in the theater, it's probably important and can't wait so we need to answer, regardless of the disruption to other viewers.
  • A lot of kids and young adults don't get much attention at home, so they have a need to overcompensate when they're out and about, trying to be funny in order to get someone to pay attention to them. Either by saying funny stuff or through plain old rowdiness. Anything to get a rise out of someone.
  • We know that we shouldn't talk during movies, but some of us do it anyway. Who cares? Offering funny commentary on the film will make your friends laugh and give you some attention for a fleeting moment. And being rowdy and disruptive will impress your friends.
  • Some of us think it's okay to bring babies or very young children to a movie theater. It's a pretty inconsiderate and selfish act that absolutely baffles me, and I don't think it's very nice to the baby, either. "To hell with the other people. I want to see this movie and I'm bringing my baby who is likely to cry." When you have a baby, that means you don't get to go to the movies unless you have a babysitter. I have a 1 1/2 year old niece. Her parents haven't been to the movies in - you guessed it, 1 1/2 years.

I still go to the movies, now more than ever. It's not always bad, and there are some good theaters out there where you don't run into this nonsense. Plus, a good movie usually makes me overlook the hassle. But my passion for film is far greater than that of the thousands of former regular filmgoers who have given up on going to the movies. For the money you're spending, you deserve a decent moviegoing experience.

When we go to the movies, it's a communal experience. But certain people behave as if they're the only ones in the theater. The majority of moviegoers are considerate. Decent. Well-behaved. Quiet. Respectful. It's a small percentage of the audience that makes the moviegoing experience unpleasant. There's a few in almost every multiplex auditorium, and they've helped millions of moviegoers make the decision to stay home instead of go to see a movie. They're costing the film industry hundreds of millions of dollars - more and more each year. And the funny thing is: The industry seems completely unaware of it. They're looking at their product, the marketing, star appeal, demographics, 3D and IMAX... But they pay no attention to the actual filmgoing experience itself. They spend millions of dollars going after pests who pirate, but the pests inside the theater? Zilch.

My advice to Hollywood: While you work on improving your product and making films that appeal to more than just your most profitable demos and just figure stuff out in light of this recent downturn, tell the theater owners to get their acts together and make the movie theater a place where people actually WANT to be. Here's some ideas to start:
  • Have strict no-talking and no-texting policies, and enforce them. Take action. Kick offenders out and show your patrons that you care about their moviegoing experience.
  • Get more creative and aggressive with your no-talking/no-texting announcements. Make them more than just cell phone commercials. Take a hint from Alamo Drafthouse.
  • Have ushers around to assist with seating for showings at or near capacity.
  • Try assigned seating. No lines, no need to get to the theater an hour early, and no need to get hostile with fellow filmgoers.
  • Don't allow children under the age of 2 unless it's a cry-baby, mommy matinee, baby babble or whatever other screening designated for parents with infants. And don't allow children under a certain age (say, 10?) into R-rated films, regardless of whether they're with an adult. Bringing your six year-old  into a hard-R sex comedy or an ultra-violent torture horror flick borders on child abuse in my opinion.
  • Offer more food and drink options at the concession stand.
  • Some theaters have an usher introduce each film, which I think is a good idea. That might seem silly or awkward, but it adds a personal touch to an experience that's otherwise low on human interaction. I think that having someone with a smile on their face welcome you to the theater, pump you up about the movie, tell you about refreshments, try to sell you a membership, and ultimately give you the house rules makes people more likely to obey them.
  • And how about this? On some films, drop the 3D surcharge.

Any other ideas? Please add your own notes to theaters in the Comments below.

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