Saturday, February 28, 2009

How Can We Recession-Proof the Movies?

As you might have heard, movies are not, at present, feeling the effect of the recession. 2009 was the biggest January on record and February was unusually strong, too. The Alamo Drafthouse is reporting their best Januarys and Februarys to date, and with the big slate of titles coming out through the last week of April (WATCHMEN; MONSTERS VS. ALIENS; FAST & FURIOUS and I’m gonna add DUPLICITY to that list, just to be nice to someone) it’s probably going to be a record spring. Sure, some of the big hits haven’t been deserved (I’m looking at you, FRIDAY THE 13th PART 12), but it’s pretty damn cool that in a search for affordable entertainment, Americans have turned such fine films as GRAN TORINO, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, Henry Selik’s excellent CORALINE and even TAKEN into hits. I’d love to think that they would have all been hits anyway, but let’s be honest here, times are tense and people are looking for comfort food at the moment. Some people may have seen our current financial crisis coming, but they should have known that once it hit, people would go back to the tried and true, the movies.

There’s a myth that the movies are recession proof, but that’s exactly what it is, a myth. There have always been times when ticket sales are down, even in much better economic times (remember back in 2005 when everyone thought that movie theaters were going to go the way of CD stores?), and in past recessions movie theaters were not always filled with folks. During the recession of the early 80s hit movies mostly came around in the summer and Christmas with few spring and fall hits, and I distinctly remember the recession of the early 90s being quite bad on the old HQ 10, with many shifts cut and reduced show schedules to keep costs down (I was working two jobs at the time to get by). Yes, they were an important tonic to many during the last Great Depression and they did extremely well back then, but the way movies are in 2009 makes me think that there might be some rough seas ahead. Movies were about $0.25 a ticket back then, affordable for most families, while now they’re about $9 in the suburbs and more in the major cities, and if you’re looking to see a 3-D or IMAX movie, then it’s about $60 or so for a family of five, and that’s without popcorn or parking (or beers and burgers at the Alamo). That doesn’t really strike me as affordable, but most people don’t seem to mind at the moment, though perhaps at some point down the line (especially if this stretches out as long as people think it will), waiting for the DVD might end up being more of an option. Just sayin’.

So what’s the answer? Fuck if I know. You can’t lower ticket prices, since the theater chains and studios would both scream bloody murder, as they’re pretty much all publicly traded and getting hit hard at the moment. Despite the excellent business, it wouldn’t surprise me if ticket prices continue to sneak up (and it’s always a sneak, since they never announce these things). Same thing goes for concession prices, too, though free refills on any size drink or popcorn sounds like a good idea to me, don’t you think? You could offer more discounted shows (wouldn’t hurt), perhaps even some free shows of older films or recent releases that have yet to hit DVD (AMC tried this during the recession of ’91, and while it was certainly an appreciated effort, no one went). Along these lines, I’m curious to know how the $2 theaters (or are they $3 theaters now?) are doing, providing they’re all still around (a number of them closed as DVD became more popular). Does the reduced-rate entertainment they provide have greater appeal to cash-strapped consumers? Ironically, the answers that the studios have provided over the last few years is to get bigger - 3-D, digital projection, IMAX – and though it’s currently reaping benefits, should the shit hit the theatrical fan, these are the places that are going to feel the effect the most. Already the studio’s plans to help theaters pay for digital upgrades has hit a snag, with some of those conversions now having to wait, and with major upcoming 3-D titles like AVATAR and the TOY STORY re-issues lacking necessary screens, some big pictures might suffer (notice how CORALINE took a hit when they lost most of their 3-D screens to that Jonas Brothers thing). Those one-time only satellite screenings do pretty well, I’m told, but they basically help bring up the weeknight numbers, nothing more; if they did something like screen TV shows once a week (like we do at the Alamo) or create new theatrical-only series, then they might have something there. But they haven’t for some reason, giving us only limited-appeal programming like Metropolitan Opera House performances (fine, if you’re into that), concerts, documentaries and occasional classic films (mainly to promote new DVDs), but it’s still pretty uninspired at the moment.

It’s cool that there are new reasons for going to the movies, but what exactly are they giving back to the audience? Once they figure that out, then they can breathe a little bit easier in knowing that the audience will always return. It will be more than a little dangerous to presume that the audiences will keep coming despite the bad times. Movies costs more and it’s always possible that people can give them up to help make ends meet. Cool as much of this new technology is, it might end up going unused if people abandon the movies. Something has to be done. Some new ideas need to be introduced and the audience has to get more in return beyond better sound and picture. Turns out that by thinking bigger is better, the studios have most likely painted themselves into a corner.

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