The Spielberg Prediction

What is the future of Cinema? ☛

Recently Steve Spielberg predicted that the movie business would be likely to implode very soon, a sentiment echoed by his friend George Lucas.  Put aside, if you can, an irony so vast that the Death Star would take a few shots to destroy it: these two men did more than anyone else to invent the blockbuster format which they now accuse of dragging down the industry. If, as Spielberg predicts, the paradigm of the movie business is going to have to change, what will the future hold? How will films be shown and what will this mean for independent movies?

“Implode”, while being  a dramatic and eye-catching word, is pretty vague. If the result is unclear, however, the cause is not. Spielberg is talking about Revenge of the Killer Turkeys: the possibility of five or six blockbusters failing in a year, and taking a studio or two with them. This possibility has long been mooted: every year the Hollywood studios bet the farm on the success of their tent-pole movies and every year, so far, the tent has just about stood upright. But Spielberg is right: by the law of averages, this can’t go on forever.   If the worst happens the movie business will undergo a step change. In fact, following Steven’s comment, it might even be that his fellow movie bosses decide to pre-empt their own collapse and change before the inevitable happens… but I wouldn’t bank on it.

“E.T.” them were the days…

What will this brave new world look like? Spielberg prophesies a surprising charge headlong towards the problem: fewer but bigger blockbusters, staying in cinemas for longer. When speaking alongside Lucas, he reminisced about ET playing for over a year on its initial release. This view is coloured by the difficulties he reports in getting hit historical epic Lincoln made for the big screen, a difficulty shared by Lucas with his project Red Tails. The thinking is “if guys like us struggle to get anything other than a blockbuster into theatres, what hope is there for everyone else? We might as well give up and make TV series, everyone seems to like those.” This  conclusion mixes common sense with the unfortunate assumption that if a film is  made for less than $50m, it doesn’t really count. It also ignores the process of natural selection: ET stayed in cinemas because it was a masterpiece of its genre, which captured the popular imagination, unlike Spielberg’s Hook, which did a roaring trade in empty seats. Fixing the current system is not as simple as making just enough blockbusters to fill cinemas and keep them running until everyone has seen them. Any reinvention of the movie business has to accept that some movies will be turkeys: the whole point is to find a way to protect studios from the danger of systemic failure. I’m no stockbroker, but don’t canny investors spread risk over a mixed portfolio? Bigger and fewer can’t be the way to go.

So if we’re not to be flattened by wall-to-wall blockbusters, what would be a good way forward for the big screen experience? Many suggestions have been made and experiments tried. I’ve heard it mooted that movie cinemas might follow the example set by the airline industry post 9/11 and rebuild their price structure. This could be done as it is with low-budget airline seats, so that cinemas are playing as close as possible to capacity, even if some people in the room paid very low prices, depending on when they booked. Spielberg raised the ugly head of price variance: he imagined tickets for Iron Man selling for $25, whereas his own Lincoln might only raise $7 a seat.  This strategy would be bad news for independents, one of the big advantages we have now is that a ticket for Man of Steel costs the same as a ticket for Like Crazy, even though the budget for the latter was one thousandth of that of the former. Even in times of recession people don’t seem to stint on cheap treats, so it’s unlikely that lower ticket prices would provide any advantage for smaller films.

Some commentators have wondered about making cinema a more value–added experience, partly to compete with home entertainment. Indeed, this has started to happen. For example, the Electric Cinema in London offers leather armchairs with footstools and a choice of cocktails. Such luxury screening rooms are popping up all over the western world. Other exhibitors have chosen to add elements of theatricality to the experience, such as Secret Cinema. They run site-specific themed screenings of established classics: Casablanca in a 30s ballroom, The Shawshank Redemption in a converted prison. The audience have to dress appropriately and other entertainments are staged by actors to get you in the mood for the movie. These approaches are creative and fun, but can only ever be part of the answer for a global industry.

“Casablanca” in style

Others still have focused on technology, seeing the Internet as an ally in getting people to walk through the cinema foyer, rather than as the enemy.  At a ‘Power to the Pixel’ event recently I heard about the Moviemobz scheme running in Brazil: 200 cinemas in 26 cities are linked up to a network. People go online and say what film they’d like to see, along with where and when they’d like to see it. If there’s demand, a screening is arranged and the film sent to the cinema via broadband. This allows the last word in responsiveness to audience appetite: cinema on demand. If a movie proves sufficiently popular, it will be playing in theatres a year after its initial release, just like dear old ET.

Another technological advance that could help independent cinema is the recent improvements in HD projectors. Back in 2005 I remember Mike Figgis prophesying that cheaper projectors would mean that any large room in which people could gather would become a cinema – lecture theatres, village halls, theatres between stage shows, the upstairs rooms of pubs, &c. This seemed like a good idea even if, back then, it meant projecting onto a big screen in standard definition from DVD. Lo and behold, 8 years later projectors have become significantly better, films can now be projected in HD from laptops or Blu-Ray players… and yet this vision of fringe cinema is a long way from having taken off.  Quite why, I’m not sure. If Spielberg’s prophecy of blockbusters running for as long as Broadway shows comes to pass, we’ll certainly need an Off-Broadway alternative. Maybe this could be it?

There are many creative ways to get movies to the big screen and yet the mood from Spielberg, Lucas and many commentators suggests that we are in the last days of the big screen experience, unless you count 36” as big.  In these days when you can decide on a whim that you fancy watching The Hangover or even Casablanca tonight, and the film is just a keystroke away via iTunes, LoveFilm or Netflix, why would you head out into the cold and wet to pay three times as much to see it with the Great Unwashed?

And yet people still make that trip in to town. Cinema attendance in the UK has been on the rise since a low point in 1984 and overall US box office figures remain solid. Despite many challenges over the decades from TV, home video and now VOD (video on demand) people still seem to like sitting in cinemas.

The shared human experience

There are many reasons for this but chief amongst them, in this writer’s opinion, is the group experience. Internet technology encourages us to live life remotely – whether it be working from home, Skype meetings, social media. Real-world group experiences are under threat. And the fact that most of the people you share the cinema experience with will be strangers to you is part of the point. Finding a story funny or scary or otherwise moving reminds us why we keep on living. Realising that two hundred strangers feel exactly the same way tells us that we’re not alone. It makes us feel a part of society in the way that church services and pub sing-alongs did in other times and places.

I believe that the big screen experience stands a strong chance of survival. Ironically, however, the greatest threat to its continued existence is if those big screens show blockbusters and nothing else. In trying to find a more stable business model, the Studios could easily kill what they seek to save. Spectacle is something cinema does uniquely well, but if movies forget to capture the hearts of the viewing public, people will start to drift away and look for the next fantastical sideshow.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2013

Edited by Dr Sara Lodge


***  A.C.E. are coming to London town for the first time with EditFest on  29th June  ***

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14 Responses to “The Spielberg Prediction”
  1. Piet Sonck says:

    My personal feeling is that each big (silver white) screen experience should be treated as an event: people are eager to be part of a special evening, be it in attendance of famous people and/or an all-inclusive movie themed treatment and/or just plain extra movie info. with an introduction: I did just that 15 years in a row with ‘The Sneak Preview’ and we got full house (all 423 seats of them) .. every week. For that, you can charge more and people are willing to pay that extra amount, no questions asked ! That’s showbizz … & an offer you (just) can’t refuse !

    • guyducker says:

      I’ve heard of this business model before, and it seems to work well for smaller films. It was done some years back for “Christie Malry’s Own Double Entry” where Nick Moran and Kate Ashfield toured the art house cinemas of the UK with a single print.

      It doesn’t sound so good however for bigger films where more money needs to be recouped. There the advantage of having more prints/copies of the film than you have celebs probably needs to be embraced. Although celebrity Q&A screenings can always support the release of such films.

  2. Joe says:

    The future (based on what I am seeing in UK especially but not exclusively London) is smaller boutique cinemas with multi screen architecture but wider choice that just studio/distributor mass market films. The growth of digital technology and better sound systems in such buildings plus allowing some non mainstream films or mini festivals to be held by organisers.

    The reasons for this move are several but include:
    – recession economics;
    – growth of an older age profile cinema going audience versus the still latent heavy marketing to 16-30 years age group)
    – a follow on of that demographic trend is people with more leisure time (especially over 60s who will go in daytime not just evenings and weekends);
    – more short films (30 to 90 minutes) of higher quality being generated by independent directors and producers, while Hollywood just seems to feel longer films (2 hours plus) are better fare.

    I still miss when you got two films per screening session which only Art House and Film Club type cinemas still seem to do, in giving value and variety.

    P.S. Someone should get Lucas to fess up that “Red Wings” was a dog!

    • guyducker says:

      A very interesting perspective. When I worked on “Calendar Girls” the target demographic was (believe it or not) 25-35. Since then it feels like the film industry is slowly starting to use to the idea that there are enough people over the age of 35 who want to see movies to make producing films for them a viable proposition.

      The digital projection for art house cinemas thing was originally fluffed by the UKFC. The projectors they provided were all put into the ‘screen 1’s of all the cinemas where they ended up showing the more mainstream independant films that did actually have 35mm prints. The small indy films were stuck having to shell out for prints they could ill-afford in order to get a place in screen 3. Hopefully the continued roll-out of digital projection has by now righted this wrong.

  3. Joe P. says:

    When you gave reason for why people continue to go to the cinema, you didn’t make mention of the fact that most new releases only come out in the theater and can be viewed at home months later. I’d say it’s pretty much human nature to want the newest and best stuff. If all of your friends are talking about the latest movie, you have to go see it in the only format available: the big screen. Not everyone subscribes to this, of course, but I would go so far to say it’s as big of a factor in people’s attendance as the shared experience.

  4. Han Solo says:

    Interesting that Mike Figgis was recently reported in The Guardian saying the main impediment to setting up pop up cinemas was the vast amount of bureaucratic red tape involved.
    As to why people go to the cinema – whilst its true a comedy is better seen with a big audience Im happy seeing a film in an empty cinema. Perhaps it is because cinema is so overwhelming. You have to make a deliberate act to journey to a cinema, making it as much a event in your personnal calendar as going to the theatre or a concert in that you start to anticipate it. Unlike the sofa bound half hearted flick of the wrist it takes to order a film on your home screen. Plus the experience itself is free from distractions of home – you cant eat your dinner, pause the film to take a call, you cant see the bit on the skirting board you missed when you were painting or where the dog was sick on the carpet, and your partner doesnt wander into the cinema to ask you if youve paid the gas bill and so on. It is a truly immersive experience matched only be dreaming or reading a book.

  5. Nic Lawson says:

    Really? A couple of old men complaining that they can’t get films made anymore and as a result the industry will come to an end! I expect the Lumiere brothers said that 100 years ago, and in 100 years time there’ll be another couple of old men complaining that filmmaking won’t be the same without them.

    “Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”

    • guyducker says:

      Well put, Nic, some such complaints need to be taken with a pinch of salt, or at least judged against the films that were “almost impossible to get financed”. Certainly there have been some masterpieces that almost didn’t make it to the screen for stupid reasons. There have also been plenty of dreadful movies from once-talented filmmakers, or (being kind) films which were an experiment too far.

      Let’s see what Schrader and Figgis, the other two grumps du jour, come up with: hard-done-by works of genius or movies that really deserved to struggle.

  6. Jorge Manuel says:

    Guy – Good points, yet… it is still thinking inside the old box. For starters, I think Spielberg’s comment should be considered an observation of a(n ongoing) bubble about to burst rather than a prediction. You can see some of the same signs from other bubbles, particularly housing. Mostly, the contradictions in the current model become too apparent, and that scares off investors, then commentators (like yourself, but mostly financiers) and then recycle investors into the equation, so it finally turns into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But wait, some of us have caught on as well and see the future in new forms. Yes, maybe traditional cinema is not so much going to implode as it will turn its own structure on its head. It’s the only way around the red tape the industry itself prodded against newcomers and independents. Part of what made it grand, but also the reason it is reaching its limits so early, along with other trends around us. Once we finally clear the remaining hurdles it all starts with a few good savvy investors. And new fortunes will be made.

  7. Julian Rodd says:

    I had many a conversation with Paul Schrader about the death of cinema when we worked together, but as ever best summed up by the man himself:

  8. I really hope cinemas will stop showing so many 3d films. This is a gimmick that cinemas are using to ensure there is still something you can uniquely get at the cinema, but some films are just better as 2d. These gimmicks are really annoying. But count me in for an imax showing.

  9. Pieter Pretorius says:

    Insightful , for film makers in Africa. The possibility to attract cinema audience in Africa through new inventions open the door for exciting new developments. This will stop the monopoly of big industry players of films and open the door for private enterprise to grow. Your article gave me a new perspective on the cinema market in Africa.

    Pieter Pretorius

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