THE DYING RACE OF CINEMAGOERS
From the beginning of the 20th century, the film industry has fascinated, surprised and thrilled audiences with revolutionary technology which allowed talented storytellers to tell their tales, through the miracle of sight. Early classics, such as ‘Metropolis’ helped ignite the worlds imagination, allowing both filmmakers and audiences alike to wonder at what was possible in the way we tell stories. The film industry has had few competitors over its existence, and despite some rough periods in its history, no other medium of storytelling has evolved, re-evolved and revolutionised itself as much as the Hollywood film industry has. Stories told through moving images, sound and colour was a reality few could ponder in the early 1900’s. Yet here we are, about a century later taking for granted the very thing that inspired so many before.
Why do we take it for granted? It’s a big question. I have never lost my love for cinema. Not even after watching great movies and being disturbed by the inconsiderate, or even after watching terrible movies, praying the inconsiderate would chirp up to provide a welcome distraction. Cinema was my first true love and I shall never betray her beauty, wonder and magic – even if they did another series of ‘Breaking Bad’. However, I understand that not everyone feels this way about films; and certainly not about the cinematic experience. I get it. It’s expensive, and more often than not, the film is not worth the price of admission. But cinema has been the go-to medium of storytelling for decades. Books have always been considered the intellectual’s pursuit, but I defy anyone who would claim that ‘The Godfather’ is not as profound as ‘Great Expectations’.
Cinema attendances have fallen over the last decade or so, and you don’t have to be a genius to figure out why. In 2002, 176 million people visited the cinema. In 2014, the same statistic read 157 million. 19 million people fewer in a decade. That might not seem like much, but for cinema to lose that level of audience sets a frightening precedent for the future. There are many aspects to blame for this fall, but none more culpable than the notoriously high ticket prices for the average filmgoer, which is why the big budget films do so well. Audiences find a certain necessity to see ‘Avengers: Age Of Ultron’ on the big screen rather than at home, because it is an event movie. The same cannot be said for smaller films like the recent ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. Clearly, audiences reserve a cinema trip for special occasions. Cinemas are forced into charging these astronomical prices due to the one-sided agreement in place with many film distribution companies, where theatres, on occasion, take as little as 10% away from ticket sales. Film distribution companies are literally holding theatres to ransom. But the domino effect of this short profit margin is that families, and more importantly children, the future audience for cinema, are being priced out of visiting. The proof is in the popcorn; the theatre favourite is the most profitable commodity in the world. A truly terrifying and revealing fact. And adverts? That half an hour you’re sat there waiting for the movie to start – the key to a theatre’s success. I don’t have the heart to tell you just how much EE pay to get those Kevin Bacon adverts up on the silver screen every time.
THE THRIVING RACE OF COUCH POTATOES
A lot of industry voices have attributed this decline in film attendance on film piracy, and while this is obviously a problem for cinema in general, it does not cut to the core of what the real issue is. The real, indisputable cause behind the slow death of cinema, is the rise of a competitor; a competitor half the age of cinema and yet now, undoubtedly outshining it. For a long time, it was the shadowy pretender to film’s throne. Now it is arguably the king of storytelling. I am talking, of course, about television. Ever since ‘The Sopranos’ first aired in 1999, TV has had a rapid rise in popularity. The latest ‘Avengers’ movie was recently released, yet all I hear being talked about is the new series of ‘Game Of Thrones’. There are still people today who are only just committing themselves to their first ‘Breaking Bad’ binge watch. Television has never been so popular, and I say “congratulations”.
So why is TV taking over as the preferred medium of storytelling? The first reason is that it is addictive. TV shows are written in such a way that each episode creeps under your skin and grabs you before you realise it. I am a long-term fan of ‘Entourage’, a rather lightweight series in comparison to something like ‘The Wire’. Yet, at 30 minute an episode, I can fly through a series; no problem. Also, the simple time frame to a TV series, the infinite number of episodes; it all allows characters to breathe and develop, which allows the audience to form bonds with their on screen heroes (or bad guys, your call). The rise of legal streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime have afforded story seekers an alternative and, let’s be honest, preferable way of watching both TV and film. The key is a combination of convenience and cost. A Netflix subscription gives you a month of unlimited viewing of anything you want (from their selection), for the measly sum of just £7 a month. If you watch a movie in IMAX and 3D, you may have just blown two months’ worth of Netflix.
Audiences are getting more for their money, and don’t need to leave the house to get it. Hell, they don’t even have to get dressed. This sort of viewing is revolutionising the way TV studios, and now film studios are targeting their audience. Some TV shows are made in house; Amazon Prime have produced their own shows like ‘Extant’, and Netflix have produced ‘House Of Cards’ and ‘Orange Is The New Black’. You only have to whisper the name Frank Underwood, and you will be drawn into a deep discussion on the malignant politician. Even if you don’t immediately pick one of these winners, with home streaming, the viewer can quickly choose something else at no extra cost.
THE WINNER TAKES IT ALL
Hollywood is afraid. Film studios are afraid of losing that golden crown that once sat unchallenged on the head of the silver screen. As a result, they do not take risks. On the other hand, almost every TV show made these days is littered with risky gambles – not least those coming out of America. ‘Game Of Thrones’ is a great example of this. HBO have taken a rich and intricate series of fantasy books, and adapted it for the small screen. There is nothing small about its budget, nor the level of violence and sex in its episodes. On paper this could easily have been a monumental failure, and yet it is now one of the most talked about and loved franchises out there.
Cinema is caught in a vicious cycle of quick-fixes and sure fire sellers; releasing content with a built-in fan base who are guaranteed to invest the first time, who won’t enjoy the experience (either because of the film’s lack of quality, or someone else has spoiled the experience) and then choose to stay at home next time. From time to time, you get great films released like the works of Christopher Nolan, films which capture the imaginations of audiences, even in this fastidious age. It is films like ‘Inception’ which prove that audiences still respond to challenging and entertaining films. The problem is that there are simply not enough of them made.
The Marvel cinematic universe is another example of how some projects have developed an increasingly popular product for the masses. In the same way the ‘Harry Potter’ books encouraged the young to read again, Marvel Studios have brought back some sort of audience to cinemas. But even now, I can feel the gentle tug of boredom looming in the distance, as Marvel start to run out of ideas and scrape the barrel for their most niche character’s origin story. Marvel is in danger of recruiting an overwhelming amount of heroes to their world and turn it stagnant. The studios most exciting prospect right now is none other than ‘Daredevil’, and where can you find him? Netflix of course, and you get the whole first series available to you right away.
Regardless, more needs to be done in Hollywood. They have to take a leaf out of television’s hefty tome and take more risks. They have to try and find more mavericks like Christopher Nolan, and stop worrying about fact and figures. There is nothing more important than quality, create something great and the audiences will find it. More can be done at cinemas too, where the focus needs to shift from retail products and go back to basics; showing movies. Ultimately, a conversation needs to be had between the cinemas and film studios, to renegotiate ticket price percentages. That way, the movie theatre might find more breathing room in their wallets and begin to fix what has put people off for so long. For now, I live in hope.