Hollywood: Like Detroit, But Stupider

Where are all the moviegoers going? Nowhere. They're at home, downloading illegal bootlegs and laughing (out loud!) about it.
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I am a movie critic. While the gig isn't exactly up there with astronaut or bounty hunter in the what-kids-want-to-be-when-they-grow-up department, it is easier than those jobs. It also comes with glamorous perks like being paraphrased in advertisements and receiving e-mailed threats from teen girls who disagree with your opinion of Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience. But one fringe benefit overshadows all others: Every time you see a movie, the crowd is especially well behaved. Why? Because you don't have to watch movies with normal people. You get to watch them from comfortable chairs in small screening rooms filled with your peers, most of whom are too old to make a sound other than the occasional gurgle. This is excellent, because if you're like a growing number of Americans, paying to see a movie in the theater makes about as much sense as paying for music or pornography or anything else our ancestors couldn't get for free.

I recently asked BoingBoing.net co-founder Mark Frauenfelder what he thought of April's Swedish-court ruling against ThePirateBay.org, the Google of illegal file sharing (unless you count actual Google, which does pretty much the same thing, just not as loudly). He believes a search engine that directs users to illegal content should not be penalized as if it were the actual host of said content. "Pointing to something shouldn't be against the law," he said. I think that's stretching it, but didn't say so, because I like the guy. But the other point Frauenfelder made has been echoed by pretty much everyone I've spoken to on the subject: Movie studios must change the way they do business if they want to avoid the same fate as the music industry, which now is doing about as well as the oral-storytelling industry was at the middle of the 15th century.

According to the National Association of Theater Owners, Americans bought 1.363 billion movie tickets last year (almost none of them for "Speed Racer"). That is nearly a quarter-billion fewer tickets than were sold in 2002. Want more fun numbers? From 1992 to 2002, tickets sales declined from one year to the next only twice. In the six years since, it's happened four times -- and a disappointing summer season is offering no hope for a trend reversal. Wednesday on the New York Times' Carpetbagger blog, Michael Cieply noted that last weekend's box office haul was slightly smaller than the same weekend's a year ago, writing, "The box office, after surging all year, is finally flattening out just as the big summer movies arrive." In the movie business, this is called "bad news."

So where are all the moviegoers going? Nowhere. They're at home, downloading illegal bootlegs and laughing (out loud!) about it. I can't say I blame them. Movie purists in the media love to prattle on about the joy of seeing a film on the big screen. But those people have no idea what they're talking about, because they see movies the same way I do -- comfortably. On the few occasions when I've seen a movie with the paying public, the experience struck me as a cross between being a groundling at Shakespeare's Globe and being Faye Dunaway at the end of "Bonnie and Clyde." Crowds are boorish, theaters are filthy, and the car commercials before the previews make me 10 times as averse to buying a car as the ones on TV do. That people actually pay to be subjected to these conditions -- especially considering that the average U.S. ticket price has increased by 53 percent since 1998 -- is remarkable.

Frauenfelder suggests that film executives must concede an end to the boom times and turn their attention to creating models for a leaner and meaner industry. "They won't be able to make money on the level that they're used to because of the technology that is out there," he says. "Unless they can learn to provide something that is more like a live performance, or sell a physical experience that can't be copied and use a movie as a way to market it, they might be in trouble. That's the reality."

Frauenfelder lives in Los Angeles, which makes me feel bad for him, but also puts him in close proximity to the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood and Sherman Oaks, which charge premium prices for a premium experience that includes reserved seating, advanced sound systems and a grown-up friendly lobby with full bar and table-service restaurant.

I don't get reserved seating or the chance to enjoy wine and tapas before a screening (though I will down the occasional sidewalk-cart gyro and Red Bull just before going in), but I can see how the paying public might be interested in a theater experience that is more like mine. The idea makes so much sense, it's almost certain to be embraced by the film industry as warmly as forward thinking was embraced by the music, print, automobile and finance industries a few years ago.

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