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TV Didn’t Kill the Movie Theater (Yet), Competition Forced Them to Adapt or Die

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | April 23, 2013 |

By Rob Payne | Think Pieces | April 23, 2013 |

Last week, Joanna struck partially on a topic I — and, I imagine, most of us cinephiles — have been pondering for some time. I agree with everything she wrote in her piece on how TV has been successfully waging war against movies and movie theaters for the better part of a decade, except for the headline. Perhaps our nostalgic conception of what multiplexes used to be, or used to mean, has died, but theater owners and the studios that supply them with content aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. In many ways, we’re just getting older and kids today will wistfully recall their slick, black 3D glasses the way our parents might Smell-O-Vision or drive-ins. Movies and movie theaters aren’t dead; they’re adapting and evolving into new, vaguely unrecognizable creatures.

First things first: Critics and culture aficionados have been talking about the death of movies since the advent of TV. And then video games were killing both movies and TV. And now the Internet, and its plethora of eyeball consuming possibilities, is doing it all over again. Only a century ago, people thought movies would replace live performances. But we still have concerts and the theatre, only they’re either large spectacles on Madison Square Garden and Broadway, with well-known stars, or they’re exponentially smaller dive bar sets or local community productions, featuring mostly your friends and family. Entertainment finds a way, always, so we’ll have movies, TV, and video games until the fateful day when we finally destroy ourselves or reach a new level of consciousness. Because, damn it, humans like to be entertained, and our favorite entertainments are almost always played out before our eyes. Why else would musicians and stand-ups tour the world, or podcasts perform live?

The only real difference between now and thirty years (or thirty centuries) ago is that where we find our entertainment is fractured by a nigh infinite number of possibilities. It’s hard to argue against the obvious popularity, and superiority, of in-home viewing experiences for most movies. Two of my favorites from last year were Safety Not Guaranteed and Jeff, Who Lives at Home, but I saw neither of them at a theater and my affection for them wouldn’t have changed if I had. In contrast, a movie that demanded to be seen in theaters, Skyfall, played much better the second time at home, because the theater in which I originally watched it was terrible - dirty, uncomfortable, and filled with other people who clearly didn’t care about James Bond as much as I did. But that’s my own fault, as there were other theater options that I didn’t take, like I did with The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, and Prometheus, which were the only other movies from 2012 that I made sure to see during their theatrical runs. Your mileage may vary on the quality of those productions, but the absolute best way to see them is on the biggest screen you can find and with a like-minded audience. Avatar is probably the best recent example of this, because if you missed it in 3D and IMAX, you really needn’t have bothered.

I’m not alone, as the comments on Joanna’s post can attest. Studios know this. Of course they do. This is the exact reason why the majority of movies released by the big studios in the U.S. are tentpoles, franchises, and budget busters they hope will be future tentpoles and franchises. Transformers 4 is only being made because people went to see the first three, at the theater, in droves. Why? Because it’s spectacle, and if audiences are going to leave the comfort of their homes and pay the rising ticket costs, they damn well better have a good reason. Even Les Miserables was made to look and feel like the scope could match something from the Marvel Universe, and I have it on good authority that anyone who failed to see Life of Pi on the silver screen is going to deeply regret a year from now when we finally see it on Netflix or Amazon. If even good movies with visual splendor get ignored, why would studios invest in those when the next Batman is guaranteed to turn a staggering profit?

Simply going to see a masterpiece like Moonrise Kingdom (approximately $45 million domestic gross) isn’t enough these days, whereas only 11 years ago The Royal Tenenbaums surpassed $50 million with ease (approximately $68 million with inflation). Neither exploded the marketplace, but it’s clear that even Wes Anderson fans aren’t rushing out to the multiplex quite like they used to. Those types of movies can, and will, still be made, but they’re less and less funded by studios and mostly released via studios’ indie departments. Mega-deals like Kevin Smith’s for Clerks with Miramax just won’t happen again, but thanks to crowd funding sites like Kickstarter, the Veronica Mars movie can. Soon, studios will only enthusiastically make these smaller, less bombastic movies when we stop watching them at home or fund them ourselves. If you like being a patron of the arts, for its own sake or your own benefit, this is far from the worst of all possible outcomes.

Just to get a better grasp on how dramatic the shift in audience viewing habits and the studios’ response has been, I did some research on Box Office Mojo, using this handy-dandy inflation calculator so all my numbers were equitable. In 1982, the highest grossing movie in domestic revenue was E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which clocked in at a little under $900 million (after inflation) and was shown in less than 2,000 theaters; thus giving it a whopping $500,000 per-theater average. That’s nearly a billion dollars in total and a cool half-million for every theater that projected the film, and that’s only in the United States. Compare that to The Avengers, which made less than $700 million at home, but on over 4,300 theaters, giving it a measly $143,000 per-theater average. But perhaps that isn’t fair? E.T. is considered a classic, and the Marvel movies probably won’t stand the test of time in quite the same way. So, let’s look at the number two spots for 1982 and 2012, Tootsie and The Dark Knight Rises, respectively.

Considering inflation, in 1982, Tootsie made $438,836,158 on 1,222 theaters, generating $359,113 per U.S. movie theater in which it played. In 2012, The Dark Knight Rises made $448,139,099, but it accomplished this feat on 4,404 theaters, which means its per-theater average in the U.S. was only $101,757. Together, Joss Whedon’s and Christopher Nolan’s huge hits only averaged about $123,000 per theater, whereas only three movies - Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, and Annie - in the domestic top 10 box office of 1982 - made less than that or about the same, and everything else made much, much more on average. Logically, if nothing had changed between 1982 and 2012, besides our collective taste, then Avengers and TDKR should have quadrupled the box office performances of E.T. and Tootsie. That they didn’t achieve this says nothing about the quality of anything, only that there’s been a seismic shift in where and how audiences are watching. Which is, wherever we want; however we want.

But this isn’t really news. Ten years after E.T., Aladdin was the highest grossing movie of the year and its revenue already fell way under the Spielberg classic. In 1992, the Disney movie made less than even Tootsie after inflation, with $359,156,102 on 2,331 theaters, giving it a $154,078 average. In 2002, another decade later, Spider-Man was the top blockbuster and while it made considerably more in the U.S. than Aladdin — $512,978,801 - it did son on 3,876 theaters, for a $132,347 average. So, in 20 years the highest grossing movies dropped approximately $400 million in total revenue, and free-fell on theater averages by more than $350,000. The entire top 10 of 1982 even had a higher per-theater average (at about $230,000) than any of the top movies from the proceeding three decades. Taking into account the international audience, the apparent demand for spectacle is even clearer. As alluded to, 2012’s two big superhero showdowns doubled (or better) their profit margins overseas, a tendency that’s been observable since at least 1992 and Aladdin. Data for worldwide numbers in 1982 wasn’t available, but it would not be surprising if the trend extended that far back with E.T., too.

So, of course movie studios are throwing every bad idea they have at us, because we, and the technologies we’ve embraced, really aren’t giving them a choice. Studios and their executives don’t know precisely what is that draws in audiences, so they may as well see if we’re interested in the kitchen sink. If that works, throw in water heater; if not, well, why not try the water heater, anyway? The moment some engineer figures out how to achieve something like the Holodeck - where we can watch movies, or experience them, on a 360-degree plane - and an enterprising filmmaker utilizes the novelty to some success, the studios will follow. At that moment, attending the theater really won’t be all that different from catching a Broadway show, exorbitant ticket prices and all. The performances won’t be live, but one day we won’t be able to tell the difference.

Movies have always changed with technology and audience expectations. Silent pictures gave way to talkies, then black-and-white gave way to color, then matte paintings and miniatures gave way to animatronics and then CGI, and then film gave way (or is now giving way) to digital. An industry that used to make money by taking artistic risks, things audiences had never seen or imagined, gives way to an industry that makes money by playing it artistically safe, because we’ve seen or imagined everything and we liked what we already saw. The only risks now are the extremely calculated risks on new moviegoing experiences - 3D and IMAX from the studios’ perspectives, D-Box and offering dinner-and-a-movie in one convenient location from the theaters’. Both only want our dollars, as much as we’re willing to give them, and most really don’t care how they get it. It’s always been this way. Thinking that any executives ought to have more noble concerns is a sure-fire way to make yourself sick.

Thankfully, there will always be room for artists like Wes Anderson, Ang Lee, and Terrence Malick to go deeper than explosive and empty spectacle, even if their works become relegated to the Alamo Drafthouses of the world. And is that so bad? Seeing movies made by people who simply love movies in venues created by others who also simply adore the medium? I don’t think so. We just have to make sure, like everything in our on-demand-for-free existence, we actually pay for the art we value. This is something we seem to forget from time to time, in our constant thirst for distractions, but artists deserve to be paid for their goods and services just like carpenters, nurses, and data entry “specialists.” If we lament the current state of movies and movie theaters, our viewing habits can help force the change we want to see. And if enough film geeks do that - and pretty much everyone geeks out about movies in some way - then the reports of the movie theaters’ death will have been, at least moderately, exaggerated.

If you’re at all interested in how I came by my numbers and don’t feel like doing the arithmetic yourselves, here’s my basic methodology:

1982, 1992, 2002, to 2012 Top Domestic Grosses and Per-Theater Averages
Domestic Gross = Total Receipts for U.S. Releases in the U.S.
Per-Theater = Average Receipts for U.S. Theaters showing U.S. Releases

1982 (Top 10)
ET w/ inflation = $889,552,189 (1,778 theaters) = $500,310/theater
Worldwide = ?
Tootsie w/ inflation = $438,836,158 (1,222) = $359,113/theater
An Officer/Gentleman w/ inflation = $321,438,952 (1,050) = $306,132/theater
Rocky III w/ inflation = $307,450,041 (1,317) = $233,447/theater
Porky’s w/ inflation = $261,252,347 (1,605) = $162,774/theater
Stark Trek II w/ inflation = $195,428,112 (1,621) = $120,560/theater
48 Hours w/ inflation = $195,318,019 (1,050) = $186,017/theater
Poltergeist w/ inflation = $189,715,607 (1,060) = $178,976/theater
Best Li’l Whorehouse w/ inflation = $172,616,245 (1,435) = $120,290/theater
Annie w/ inflation = $141,306,736 (1,102) = $128,227/theater
Average = $311,292,440 (1,324) = $235,115/theater (or, $229,585)*

Aladdin w/ inflation = $359,156,102 (2,331 theaters) = $154,078/theater
Worldwide = $504.1 million, w/ inflation = $832,990,148
Domestic vs. Worldwide = -$473,834,046

Spider-Man w/ inflation = $512,978,801 (3,876 theaters) = $132,347/theater
Worldwide = $821.7 million, w/ inflation = $1,044,112,026
Domestic vs. Worldwide = -$531,133,225
Lord of the Rings = $923.3 million, w/ inflation = $1,173,212,406
Domestic vs. Worldwide = $660,233,605

Avengers now = $623,357,910 (4,349 theaters) = $143,333/theater
Worldwide = $1.511 billion Domestic vs. Worldwide = -$887,642,090
TDKR now = $448,139,099 (4,404 theaters) = $101,757/theater
Average = $535,748,504 (4,370 theaters) = $122,610/theater (or, $122,545)*

* Depending on how you do the calculations. Dollar amounts in parentheses are true averages.

Rob Payne also writes the comic The Unstoppable Force, tweets on the Twitter, tumbls on the Tumblr, and his wares can be purchased here. He is endlessly fascinated that technology has changed television for the better, but that movies are still figuring it out.

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