OK, we're all going to watch the 78th annual Academy Awards, right? Anyone? Anyone? Funny how Hollywood always forgets to program any big releases against>"/>
OK, we're all going to watch the 78th annual Academy Awards, right? Anyone? Anyone? Funny how Hollywood always forgets to program any big releases against the telecast. Problem is, the box office is going down, down, down, as Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon sing in Walk the Line. The 2005 U.S. theatrical take fell 5 percent from the preceding year, according to Variety; over five years, attendance has shrunk 14 percent. The video market (DVD, VOD, Netflix, etc.) is much bigger than the theatrical business, and the video game haul (PSP, Xbox, etc.) dwarfs them both. Kids have better things to do than see movies. Adults are sick of seeing comic-book-based movies aimed at kids. And everybody's sick of the cell phones, ads, crying babies, and patrons rudely talking during the show. With giant flat-screen TVs, TiVo, and all the other at-home entertainment amenities, a night out at the multiplex has become increasingly unattractive.
So what does that mean for the movies, the Oscars (whose ratings have been unimpressively flat for years), and us poor filmgoers trying to balance blockbusters and indies? SW's two chief film critics sat down to discuss the dilemma.
Brian Miller: I don't even have a TV to watch on Sunday. I'll just check the results online. What will you be looking for?
Tim Appelo: A drink, to begin with. It's like there's some mass-suicide pact going on in Hollywood. The big studios don't even try to make Best Pictures anymore. And all five nominees are so small that they got stomped at the box office by the likely documentary winner, March of the Penguins.
Miller: Probably. And a scandal when Werner Herzog's infinitely better Grizzly Man wasn't even nominated.
Appelo: That's another thing that calls for a drink to numb the pain. Are they trying to drive down the Oscar broadcast's ratings even farther? When has there ever been so little suspense, so little drama?
Miller: Right. I think we both agree that Wallace & Gromit wins Best Animated Film, Crash wins Original Screenplay, and Brokeback Mountain wins Adapted Screenplay. What's your call for Best Picture? I know you loved Crash.
Appelo: Brokeback gets both Picture and Director. Because if an anti-blockbuster like Crash somehow wins, it's a sign of bad times. And Hollywood has enough of those already. But the controversy would help. Roger Ebert picked it as best film of the year, and at our sister publication LA Weekly, Scott Foundas picked it as worst. (Even Ebert's Web site editor, Seattle's own Jim Emerson, razzed it on rogerebert.com.)
Miller: Hollywood loves Brokeback, because gay is the new Jew—so we can all congratulate ourselves for being so over homophobia. But I pick Hoffman over Heath, and Reese over Felicity, so it's a draw in the gay-versus-straight acting categories.
Appelo: Those are my bets, too, and I'll bet most Oscar handicappers agree. Word has it that Harvey Weinstein refused to push Felicity's Oscar vehicle, Transamerica.
Miller: It's an average performance in a weak field. Seriously—Judi Dench gets an Academy nod just for showing up on the set in the morning? (What happened to Ziyi Zhang in 2046, Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger, or Q'orianka Kilcher in The New World?) But a crap movie. At least Brokeback is well made in the getting over things department.
Appelo: And yet, Hollywood has a limited tolerance for tolerance. It's like that old Jonathan Miller joke: "I'm not really a Jew. Just Jew-ish. Not the whole hog, you know." It's OK to be gay-ish, but there are limits. The Hollywood Reporter's Anne Thompson quoted an anonymous insider saying about Transamerica, "Harvey [Weinstein] thinks it's just a stunt performance by Felicity of interest only to homosexuals and urbanites." It could be because he wants to avoid pouring advertising money down the drain of the theatrical release, when the real profit potential is DVD.
Miller: Aha! That's the future of Transamerica, the future of Crash, the future of the movies. Crash has already sold 4.5 million units on DVD, even before the Oscars. Soon, commercial outcasts like Transamerica will go the Bubble route: simultaneous video and theatrical releases, with the latter basically a form of advertising for the former. Although no one wanted to see that chalk-tasting Soderbergh flick in either format.
Appelo: Bubble isn't a trendsetter, but video does rule. Earlier in the season, nobody would've bet 10 cents that Crash had a chance against Brokeback. Then the studio unprecedentedly sent 100,000 DVDs to members of the Screen Actors Guild, who promptly screwed the real Best Ensemble of the year, The Squid and the Whale, and put the spotlight on Crash. (And now, we are so over racism.) There's a death spiral going on: dwindling audiences for movies and Oscar broadcasts, and no more of those wonderful Miramax slugfests, with ruthless, big-bucks ad campaigns in newspapers. Oscar campaign spending has fallen by one-third to one-half in recent years, according to The Hollywood Reporter. And LA Weekly's Nikki Finke has warned that Hollywood is only going to cut back on more ads. Meaning newspapers are dying of thirst like the dinosaurs in Fantasia.
Miller: Another reason people, especially younger people, increasingly don't read critics like us. They don't want their pristine white iPods smudged with newspaper ink on their fingers.
Appelo: Why read newspapers or get spoon-fed by critics? Why passively sit through a movie when you can text-message your own review to friends during the show?
Miller: The dirty little secret to our profession is that when we see a movie to review, it's usually with a dozen other critics at a private screening midweek. No ads, no crowds, no hassles. And free. Even the parking is easier. Which only leads to the Golden Age, "It was so much better in the '70s" school of old-fogy criticism, practiced mostly by boomers who worship Pauline Kael, when most filmgoers born since the '70s have never heard of her.
Appelo: No more oracles. They get their cultural wisdom through peers, advertising, MySpace, Rottentomatoes.com, or Metacritic. They want to surf a lot of opinions, not knuckle under to any one critic.
Miller: Which is great for Hollywood, in a sense, because it always has some softie's favorable pull-quote to put in the newspaper ads. Which diminishes the profession and the newspapers for the reader and filmgoer. Their intelligence isn't respected when every movie gets five stars.
Appelo: Portland's big movie advertiser told me every star I awarded in The Oregonian's film reviews was worth $5,000 at the box office. I'll bet they're worth less now. So today I say, stars, schmars, critics, schmitics. People just want to watch videos at home.
Miller: But here's one radical notion of how theaters can fight back, or at least remain afloat financially: variable pricing, which reflects date and demand—like buying an airline ticket or, in some European cities, driving on certain roads or paying certain tolls depending on congestion, etc. So the idea would be that I pay $25 for a new release on a Friday–Saturday date night, but more like $15 in the film's second week of release, and $9 in the third; or $5 for any noon screening midweek. In a sense, that's what second-run houses like the Admiral and Crest are already doing.
Appelo: Hollywood may yet learn what I learned at Amazon.com: In a technological era, the distribution system will eventually conform to the shape of popular demand. First the big movie exhibition chains went through bankruptcy in the '90s; the studios may be next in triage—like the music biz and downloading.
Miller: One guy here at the office was lamenting that he and his wife couldn't get to see King Kong on the big screen, where it belongs, because with the baby-sitter, parking, drinks, and dinner, one evening out would set them back about 100 bucks. So he's investing in a home theater and waiting for the DVD (March 28), reasoning that it makes more economic sense.
Appelo: No question! Especially now that big-screen TV prices are plunging like the stock market in 2000. Last year, I was slavering over the prospect of buying my brother's 40-inch TV. Now, no way am I settling for less than a 50-inch screen.
Miller: Fifty is the new 40, which raises a related trend: over-21 movie houses that serve booze and food, where you can even make reservations in advance. There's the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, the Kennedy down in Portland, the Arclight in L.A. But they cost more—like $18 a ticket. Locally, you can sample the booze-and-movie formula at the Central Cinema and two Big Picture venues (one in Belltown, one in Redmond), but they can have difficulty booking first-run fare.
Appelo: I can afford better hooch at home. And the movies are generally better from on-demand and Netflix. And soon they'll be first-run at home, too. But I approve of the Boozy Movie trend, if anybody can refine the formula.
Miller: Look at places like the Guild 45, Seven Gables, Egyptian, and Harvard Exit (part of Landmark Theatres, owned by Internet billionaire Mark Cuban), where you've got Caché, Brokeback Mountain, Capote, and other art-house darlings. Not to sound too snobby, but if they upped their ticket prices and starting serving beer and wine at a few venues, even factoring in for the liquor license, might not the increased revenues help pay for new upholstering on the threadbare seats? Landmark is already catering (mostly) to an older, more affluent art-house demographic. Would it really lose the Date Movie dollars by serving pinot noir? Perhaps on selective "adults only" nights?
Appelo: Take it up with the Washington State Liquor Control Board. Or just come on over to my place Oscar night. I've got Comcast and Chateau d'Yquem.