The major film companies must divest themselves of their independent arms (which are anything but independent) and allow a return to the system that was in place for decades until greed and cinematic carpet bagging crushed it.
By Nat Segaloff
The state of independent films has lately been the subject of a small but intense discussion among people who wish there were more of them but seldom support those that get made. These folks can broadly be called “grownups,” that is, audiences whose taste in film runs to character over special effects. Not that there’s anything wrong with movies about things that blow up, but some audiences still prefer to see emotions explode rather than buildings.
The audience is substantial; according to a HHS report, the U.S, currently has 40 million people 65 and over. Only you don’t hear about them because they’re pretty much stopped going to movies except for the one or two a year that pry them away from their big-screen TVs, computers, or (gasp) books. They are also unattractive to advertisers because their brand loyalty is pretty well set. So they become invisible to pop culture.
This is not new. America’s movie theatres have been losing audiences since the late ’70s, only Hollywood tries to hide this fact by reporting on how big the grosses are instead of admitting that the actual number of tickets behind them has fallen. That’s bad enough, but what makes the trend more chilling is that it has occurred within the very demographic group that was defined in the ’60s and ’70s by its omnivorous filmgoing habits. And not only have these adults cut back on going to movies, they aren’t supporting the films that are presumably geared for them: foreign-language, documentary, and independent. What happened?
There are a number of explanations, none of which does the job, but the aggregate of which must be considered:
• Ticket prices. The industry average is $8.50, but if you live in a major city it can be twice that. On the other hand, there are senior citizen prices and cheaper matinees, so this isn’t the sole factor.
• Older audiences aren’t interested in modern fare, which is engineered to attract 19-year-old males. True, but that’s not what we’re talking about here.
• Unacceptable quality of projection and sound. In most cities, this is no longer a factor. Besides, indie films never demanded pyrotechnics, only clarity. That was their appeal.
• Movies today have violence and sex. Oh, and The Wild Bunch and Bonnie and Clyde didn’t? What about Don’t Look Now, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, A Clockwork Orange, or Dirty Harry? In the late ’60s and early ’70s, every movie seemed to need a sex scene. Today’s love stories seldom hit the bedroom.
• By the time you’ve heard about a good movie, it’s gone. Now we’re getting to the heart of the matter. If a film doesn’t open big, its distributor and exhibitors will yank it rather than let it sit and build word-of-mouth. This is short-sighted and destructive. Why, in the first place, would a film company acquire a specialized audience film and withdraw it before that audience responded? Does a new restaurant close after the first weekend if nobody comes?
• The critics don’t know anything. Younger critics must now acquire their knowledge of old movies by watching them on video, if at all, compared with older critics (and audiences) who experienced filmmakers coming into their own picture by picture as their skills and visions matured. Mass media now discourage probing, detailed reviews because they think their reading, viewing, or browsing audiences don’t care. Well, for this kind of film, they do. Too bad.
• Major film companies can’t handle small films. This gets closer to the problem. The immense machinery of distribution cannot live on the relatively minor revenue thrown off by independent films. These revenues used to be enough to support the many independent distributors who serviced the art house circuit years ago, but they have all either been acquired or driven out of business by the major film companies who saw gold in the box office take of a relatively small number of indie films and wanted into it.
• The broad market is choked off by commercial films to the detriment of independent films. This is what happens when a mass appeal industry tries to handle specialty product. On the positive side, a major distributor can get an independent film into theatres more easily than an independent distributor because of the clout they possess. On the negative side, it might be the wrong theatre for the product. It’s a sorry secret that distributors sometimes service their exhibitor friends to the disadvantage of producers.
• Commercial films and independent films don’t mix. First let’s disabuse the notion that indie films aren’t commercial. Every indie filmmaker would love a hit. From the older audience’s point of view, however, the bustling atmosphere in a theatre playing a roster of youth-themed films is a sensory overload. Just as a neighborhood bistro chucks aside its longtime patrons when it catches on with a trendy younger crowd, so can a movie theatre alienate its older audience. This isn’t to say that this is good or bad, it’s just a factor. You also don’t want to hear the noise of exploding planets coming from the screen next door when you’re trying to enjoy a costume drama set in Edwardian England.
• Curated cinemas are one solution. In fact, they always have been. In the ’60s and ’70s there were certain theatres in most cities that were known for playing the kind of films that drew sophisticated filmgoers. They were generally in larger metropolitan centers, student towns, and upscale communities. Their regular patrons counted on the people who booked these theatres to provide films that were either already of interest or that were worth checking out. When the independent distributors that provided movies to these theatres were bought by mainstream companies, these smaller theatres found it hard to compete with the local chain cinemas that had decided to show the same fare, even if they didn’t do as well. Many folded or converted to mainstream product to survive. More importantly, they lost the faith of their regular patrons.
• We have reached cinematic entropy. With shrinking potential for indie films, the large companies that now dominate the field acquire fewer titles. The spiral denudes itself. The alternative — that theatres should be able to book films directly from the producer — is seldom attempted.
• The irony is that the baby boomer population is immense, is still interested in seeing movies, and is no longer bound by raising children to need to stay at home. They would love to get out more, they have a fair amount of disposable income, they continue to be fans, and they tell their friends when they’ve seen a good film. At the same time, they are hard to reach: they are more diverse, more sophisticated, and less prone to mob a new movie on opening weekend. Each year, Hollywood spends billions of dollars trying to attract audiences. It is beyond comprehension why any industry would ignore one-third of its potential customers.
For 120 years the movie industry has been trying to streamline its production and marketing system. The latest innovation is converting to digital delivery of films so as to eliminate millions of dollars per title just to make prints. The system has perfected the formula for movies to the point where it’s hard to tell them apart. And yet each movie has to be sold separately, starting from scratch (except for sequels), and still no one really knows why a movie becomes a flop or a smash.
So the system is ready for a shake-up, and it might as well come over independent films that Hollywood would love to get rid of anyway.
One solution would be the establishment of an alternate system of distribution and exhibition. There already is an alternate system of production: that’s the very definition of independent cinema. Now we need an equally independent means of getting those films to their intended audiences, and generating enough revenue to allow more such films to be produced.
This cannot be achieved with the current mass-marketing system. The major film companies must divest themselves of their independent arms (which are anything but independent) and allow a return to the system that was in place for decades until greed and cinematic carpet bagging crushed it.
In addition, windows need to be set between a film’s theatrical release and its cable/streaming/home video release. This would make more sense with independent films anyway because of their slower roll-out, the greatly reduced interest in piracy, and the fact that independent films need time to establish themselves in the marketplace.
Ticket prices would have to be kept at current levels, however, to protect exhibitors from the drop in concession sales; adults simply don’t buy as much popcorn. Better policing of theatres would be important so that talkers, texters, and parents (grandparents?) with babies could be shunned. The viewing atmosphere must be as sophisticated as the movie. Subscription series might also be considered, although this has never worked for a number of reasons including cost, inconsistent supply of product, and questions about cross-collateralizing of revenues.
If independent cinema is to survive, it must be matched with its independent viewer base. It must be seen and treated as a finite, specialized, separate market. The fact that it remains a huge one should not be ignored.
Nat Segaloff is a former film critic for The Boston Herald, The Tab, WEEI-FM, and “Evening Magazine.” He currently writes books and produces TV documentaries in Los Angeles. His latest books are Final Cuts: The Last Films of 50 Great Directors and Stirling Silliphant: The Fingers of God.
©2014 Nat Segaloff.