Oh Fall. You have come into your own and pleasantly gifted us with a cool breeze, warm drinks and a horde of seasonal Instagram pictures. Kids are returning to school and also returning is the scent of the new semesters textbooks and during their downtime, these kids are probably going to want to glue their eyeballs to the latest and greatest in visual literature and sadly, that no longer requires them to leave their homes. The younger demographic used to be a industry stronghold for the moviegoing market, but has since lost it’s luster. And, it’s not the only demographic that has trended that direction: see the section “Trends in Per Capita Attendance.” In the last few years, moviegoing has struggled. And if there is any notable nadir, it was this last September. Our friends over at BoxOfficeMojo compile a neat little month by year comparison of total box office gross. Overall, the numbers are just shy of 400 million, the worst of any month this year. And while it is fair to say that September is a typically slow month, because statistically speaking it is, it leaves out the fact that there hasn’t been a movie month this bad since January of 2 years ago, when the number one movie was Ride Along, which even audiences thought was bleh. First thing to note: January is a terrible month for movies anyway. It should – without a doubt – be the slowest month on the calendar. All of the movies that I go to see in January are all the good movies I missed in November and December! And yet, this September looked bad for a January.
One might wonder if September was simply lacking in quality of films? But the top three box office features all remain fresh on Rotten Tomatoes. In fact Sully, the highest rated of them all, raked in over 100 million – or over 25% of the box office for September. And yes, there could have been a few more critically approved pictures in there to help out the box office, but there have been months with even fewer positively-reviewed movies, which still earned more money than this September. So, perhaps it’s the number of movies released? There did seem to be some lulls last month. But to be honest, that doesn’t add up either. According to BoxOfficeMojo, there were 79 movies released this September, which was the most movies released in September in the last 10 years save for 2013 (which had 81 and did financially better). So no, I don’t think it’s that either. In fact, I actually think the problem is two-fold. One: movies today suck a little bit more – especially when it comes to inventiveness. And two: there’s a new, more popular way to satisfy the appetites of your eyeballs.
Let’s start with the latter issue, namely the television takeover. The golden age of television is upon us and the funniest part is that a good chunk of it doesn’t have to happen on devices hung from our walls. Consumers are turning increasingly towards subscription-based streaming software, which enables them to enjoy whatever they want to watch, when they want to watch it and however many episodes they want to watch. MAYBE I NEED TO SEE THE WHOLE SEASON IN A DAY? OKAY? GEEZ. Companies like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and HBO have seen the popularity of their shows turn out subscribers en masse. The number of Netflix users have literally doubled in four years and the other streaming services can boast impressive gains as well. But people aren’t flocking to these platforms merely out of convenience, they’re heading there because that’s where the good TV is these days.
Network TV still is a stronghold for sports and the news and nothing else. Sit-coms and dramas don’t stack up as well when pitted critically against their high-budget, on-demand excitement counterparts. One of the most popular shows on TV in terms of viewership is The Big Bang Theory and while it huddles around a respectable 80% on RottenTomatoes, Netflix’s most popular show Orange is the New Black is at 96%. You would have to be living under a rock to not recognize the growing dominance this sector has over the viewer. And the concept has really stuck with today’s audiences who like to watch what they want and when they want it. They’ve been given a visual vending machine that doesn’t charge you a dime. Television is just the beginning too. Netflix has capitalized on the concept of creating original films, produced by the studio and accessible through their website. It’s a great, unhinged way for the company to provide content to the viewers and not fret over weekend box office results.
Why has this concept blossomed into a pivotal part of our entertainment sector? I think, for one thing, people like to have control. They like the freedom to be able to watch a movie and quit halfway through if it’s not worth it. I also think computers are advanced enough now that the inferior sound and visual quality of a particular movie aren’t noticeable enough for anyone to care. Which, in some regards, is a good thing. It at least shows that current audiences are invested in content, not just visual elements. People are becoming increasingly selective about what they’re viewing as well. Different tastes have developed as people have had access to so many different entertainment outlets recently. It’s great because the shows that tend to be popular are also fairly critically acclaimed. The human race has perhaps enhanced it’s palette, in some regards. The downside of all this is the decline of the moviegoer. There are all these people who are now staying home and missing out on a little piece of majesty provided by the theater.
But, I don’t entirely blame them – and that brings me to my former point. Movies these days (and I acknowledge that this is a gross generalization) suck. We’re stuck in a vortex of uninspired sequels and reboots which suffocate this culture. Studio execs take one novel concept and wear it thin until it’s a mere shell of the former thing we fell for initially. It’s old. Even when it’s new, it’s old. With all these worn-out cinematic tropes, all the excitement has been lost. They continue to coast on the success of past franchises and even that doesn’t get them very far. What it has done instead is made people pretty disillusioned with the movies.
When there are dozens of sequels and remakes that people are getting inundated with year after year, it gets old pretty quickly. It’s a shame because, of the top 10 box office movies released in 2016 thus far, only two features original characters not adapted from a previous film or series. Of those top ten films, three of those (Jason Bourne, Suicide Squad and Batman vs. Superman) were critical duds and all of those were unnecessarily drawn out additions to their respective universes. Look back twenty years ago and, in terms of the “sequel and remake culture”, the numbers look a lot different. As a whole, it hasn’t been a particularly great year for the movies.
It’s considered a safe option to go with the idea that’s already worked as opposed to the one that might not. I mean, you want the cow that you know has milk, as opposed to the one that might by dry. The problem is? They’ve squeezed some of those so dry, it’s looking a little desperate. Television, on the other hand, has taken it’s chances with the riskier cow and is drowning in milk right now. They’ve taken advantage of cinema being in this rut and run with it, which has been pretty successfully too. And though I definitely think studios need to feel the weight of their mistakes through the success of their television brethren, I can’t help but feel really sad about one aspect of this whole change: the theater.
For me, going to the movies is a magical experience, unrivaled in its ability to relax the body, touch the soul and engage the mind. Only in a theater can you really immerse yourself in the content presented to you. Experiencing a film really involves a ritual, which can’t truly be mimicked. From the moment I arrive at the cinema, I have left the world and it’s troubles behind me, prepared to enter another and disappear for a few hours. It’s calming, historic and evidently decaying. Part of the bummer of this “subscription-based streaming revolution” is the death of the cinematic experience. Sure, the snacks are free and you aren’t paying an outrageous price for your movie ticket anymore, but you’re missing out on the experience of being in a dark room with strangers and letting your eyes wander across a visual story for an hour or two. The grandeur of that serene experience has been poisoned. Gimmicks have pitched at audiences in order to attract a bigger crowd, but for the most part, they’re obnoxious. 3-D jacks up prices (which in some places are too expensive anyways), doing “premieres” or early shows the night before are a simple marketing ploy that appeases the impatient masses and the thought of incorporating texting into the cinema is grounds for cinematic excommunication. It’s changed and not for the better.
So, I believe September has come as a cautionary tale to the cinematic world. Slowly, but effectively, the sacred structure of the theater has been compromised and for fans of the cinema, it’s scary. Now, I think, like everything in life, there are ebbs and flows – some things probably won’t get better (like ticket costs) and others will disappear (like). Unlike Global Warming, there is a possibility to reverse trends before it’s too late. And there is definitely room for both good cinema and good television – we’d be lucky to have it. It’s just a matter of people in the industry listening and responding to audience needs and we will see if they do just that. After all, these days following September are the perfect time to turn new leaves.