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.
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.
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.
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
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