The 2018 year in film confirmed some things. One was that, despite the continuing amplification of forecasts assuming the imminent demise of the movie-going experience, box-office receipts were up 8 percent from 2017, exceeding $12 billion on 1.35 billion tickets sold, the industry’s biggest year in inflated-adjusted dollars in six years, and just south of $1 billion less in total inflation-adjusted receipts from 1998, 20 years ago. Like capricious Wall Street speculators who threaten to throw our economy into ruin on a collective hunch every weekday, if not every hour thereof, dire forecasts that the industry’s raison d’être, the movie theater, is finally teetering on extinction predate even then. Even before today’s streaming services and the explosion of Netflix—a company that, like Apple, once threatened to disappear amid bad PR and business decisions—riding on a wave of Silicon Valley–like startup financing and $26.9 billion in debt as of the third quarter of last year, it was the videocassette and the likes of HBO and Showtime that spelled the impending doom of the cineplex. That was before even the $14.9 billion Time-Warner merger nearly 30 years ago. No matter how many of you may be star-fazed by the prospects of Disney’s $71.3 billion acquisition of several 21st Century Fox assets, most notably its content, bet against the resiliency of the American movie theatre at your own peril.
Americans like to think big, we’re told, and the large-screen home theatre apparently isn’t large enough. That individuals, couples, families, and friends would continue to dish out prohibitive prices for theatre tickets, concessions, and possibly parking just for the right to fight it out with complete strangers in utter darkness for available seating that’s diminishing by the minute, only to sit in the frigid artificial cold for perhaps 2-1/2 hours of commercials, previews, and, alas, a film, all the while risking influenza or even pneumonia, when they could just be sitting in the comfort of their own homes on a sofa in front of the flatscreen with a bowl of Orville Redenbacher’s or Newman’s Own and their own climate control and paused bathroom breaks for far less is a phenomenon that we apparently gladly accept. I saw nearly 60 domestic and foreign theatrical releases last year, and while there are individuals who live and breathe Netflix 24/7, I can count the number of films I saw on the streaming service with one hand. Up here, I discovered Century Theatres and the chain’s luxury lounge plush reclining seating with extendable footrests; with one simple adjustment, you can turn yourself from a critically thinking film enthusiast into a decadent violator of at least three of the cardinal sins, namely vanity, sloth, and, with the tempting buttery flavored popcorn and iced soda, no less, gluttony. Simple, that is, if you can find the adjustment mechanism. At a recent Landmark Cinemas screening at a theatre in Berkeley with unfamiliar seating, it took me several complete searches of my seating in the dark to find the mechanism, and only then really when I espied an expert viewer across the way engage his; trouble was, I couldn’t disengage myself afterward. Despite several attempts to lower the boom, the latch wouldn‘t click in, and I had to do a roll, kneel, and stand into the left aisle, as if I were Ryan Gosling disengaging from a NASA training apparatus; I ultimately left the theatre with my seat fully reclined, as if it were awaiting the return of a ghostly presence the likes of Herman Munster. It’s become so bad that when I return to the hard wooden seating of an independent theatre, it’s not necessarily an essential return to integrity, but an, at times, disagreeable experience. I wonder if this is the way Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor, the Warner brothers, Harry Coen, Marcus Loew, Louis Mayer, David Sarnoff, Joseph Schenck, and Darryl Zanuck wanted it?
Too Big To Fail
Thinking big, once again, another constant threat to the cineplex, much like the New York financial sector to our economy, is, alas, its very savior: the big studio blockbuster. While the occasional action-adventure franchise film along the lines of a Jurassic World or a Star Wars or an animated children’s film à la Dr Seuss’ The Grinch will steal in for a half- or a quarter-billion dollars in domestic box-office revenue alone, the digital superhero spectacles are the house of cards in the multiplex universe. While an increase in average ticket prices from $3 to $4 and film budgets north of $18 million through the 1980s caused much anxiety about the future of the industry and the movie theatre itself, especially with the arrival of the aforementioned subscription cable services and pirate-free videocassette copy, 2018’s average ticket price was north of $9—though I’m used to paying more than $10 or $12—on production budgets that went into the nine figures more than a decade ago.
Disney, eight years after purging itself of Miramax and going nuclear, had the three highest-grossing films of the year at the domestic box office: Black Panther—in many respects, the film that defined the year, and a topic of discussion next time—($700 million), Avengers: Infinity Wars ($678.8 million), and Incredibles 2, ($608 million) on estimated production budgets of $200 million, though Infinity Wars raised the stakes another $100 million. The mark of the mouse snagged more than one-quarter of the domestic theatrical market share at $3.1 billion on 13 films. Black Panther and Incredibles 2 are two of the 20 most profitable movies of all time. Forget about John Carter and The Lone Ranger, they’re just lines askew on the graph, targets of scorn for journalists who aspire to bury somebody when they’re down, write-offs for consecutive unfortunate years. Bliss is already in production, and with Congress and the president’s gleeful corporate giveaway, as if they’d just invented Christmas, the taxman now arrives as Santa Claus, four times a year; as if in a Marvel universe, the sky’s the limit.
You may’ve noticed those top-three highest-earning films are superhero in genre; Incredibles 2 is animation but nonetheless. Superhero films accounted for more than 20 percent of the 2018 market, while the action-adventures genre from which they spring seized nearly 60 percent. If you include Incredibles 2, which you must, four of the five top earners were superhero franchises—Deadpool 2, no less, was fifth at $324.6 million. I’m not sure it was even a movie, though I didn’t bother to see it, but nonetheless suffered through previews. Including Aquaman—how could you not?—four of the five highest-earning films internationally were superhero in nature, with Infinity Wars hitting $1.37 billion for a worldwide total of more than $2 billion, $700 million more than Black Panther.
What’s the lesson? That’s a lot of popcorn—and not the Orville Redenbacher’s or Newman’s Own. The opiate of the masses? Have you checked your addiction level of late? Is it the popcorn, the soda, the candy, or all three? Is it the movie itself? Though annual profits are down more than 10 percent to $20.6 billion, Coca-Cola executives now eyeing control of China and Africa must be thinking they’ve died and gone to heaven. Marketing and product placement has never been so effortless, and rewarding; the soda practically pours itself. When we walk into the multiplex with a purchased ticket, we’ve made a deal with the devil. It’s as if Mephistopheles himself were reigning over the concessions area from an invisible office above behind one-way glass in a dark suit and tie and a burnt-red satin dress shirt. Problem is, you can’t tell if you’re in heaven or already in hell. I can typically slip by unnoticed, but too often take a b-line to the counter and willingly lay down top dollar for a small soda and/or popcorn that will likely cost more than the film itself, which could’ve cost tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to produce and promote, though my days of eating a full box of Red Vines through one flick are gone. A small soda at a Regal Entertainment Group theatre is 32 ounces, though I could swear it’s more like 44, which is Cinemark’s large. At a Regal, you could hit 54 ounces if you want to. Why? Because you can. For urban youth, the 40-ounce malt liquor is now a 20-ounce soda in a clear, plastic bottle and a shot or two of Hennessy, perhaps, though 44 ounces can be had over at Mephistopheles’ AMC. Camel copywriters couldn’t have scripted it any better. Would you like me to talk about the candy companies?
It’s not over when you enter the actual theatre, no, not by a long shot. It’s as if Mephistopheles gave you a gentle push and followed you right in, with his assistant operating the show from behind the screen à la The Wizard of Oz. You may be fortunate enough to catch the close of Maria Menounos’ Noovie—formerly FirstLook—experience. Who can resist the beaming former broadcast journalist and Miss Massachusetts Teen USA wishing you pleasantries as if looking directly into your eyes and talking to you alone, but things are just getting started, and your film is still more than 20 minutes away. You may be wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into when brightly costumed M&M’s superheroes—is there no end?—bungle their way through a live-action animated misadventure, ending up tethered to what appears to be a towering missile that’s about to launch from a cavernous underground silo in a “cell phones ruin movies” PSA, although without one you may have no choice but to watch the preshow entertainment because you just can’t look away. Isn’t the charming PSA just good, clean fun, you might ask, perfectly suited for adolescents, and the adolescent within us? I’m not sure, but with $35 billion in 2017 global revenue for parent multinational Mars, it’s just the way Mephistopheles likes it.
If you’re at a Regal cinema, good fortune arrives with a student “film,” a blissed-out promo featuring vibrant young moviegoers in an idyllic movie-theatre setting engaging in a cheerful scenario involving golden bags of popcorn and refreshing close-ups of Coca-Cola amid crystalline ice cubes inside a showy, red, disposable beverage cup displaying the Coca-Cola corporate logo. A concession stand, prominently named “concessions,” is never far away. My favorite—not really—features a quartet of students—two guys, two girls, as if in a Gidget film—who suddenly desert their college library upon the intoxicating lure of a movie, a bag of popcorn, and a clear bottle of Coke. A pair of likable student filmmakers introduce their “film” wearing long-sleeve red shirts emblazoned with the Coca-Cola Regal Films logo. The campaign seeks to “provide opportunities for student filmmakers from partner university film schools to showcase their talent.” I’m not sure if the “partner” colleges and universities, which include Columbia, Elon, and Icatha, were selected because of their prestige or because they inked exclusives with Coca-Cola to draught the thirst of their respective student bodies while on campus, but it’s a mixed message Mephistopheles delights in. At the “film’s” conclusion, the generous sponsors ask the Regal audience to “join us in supporting next generation student filmmakers.” How are we supposed to do that, one wonders, by drinking a lot of overpriced corporate soda in the audience, or by buying tickets in a multiplex that features a glut of big-budget studio arrivals that squeeze out precisely the films the campaign claims it will support, a Mephistophelean irony if ever there was one. Are we really to believe one of these nice, next-generation filmmakers will go on to become the next Damien Chazelle (Harvard), Ryan Coogler (USC), or public-university–educated Barry Jenkins (Florida State) by way of selling out to an American multinational soft-drink conglomerate and domestic movie-theatre megachain? Will they make their imprint on a next-gen digital extravaganza, even as a third director or technician, get a break when the film they finance by mortgaging their home hits it big at Sundance, or will they just come to their senses and turn to business? Whichever, they’re off to a promising start, and the preshow must go on.
Screen Vision—Ryan And Me
Screenvision Media, which bills itself as “the leader in movie theatre advertising,” although Mephistopheles rebranded them “the premier cinema, video, and media organization that curates powerful and uncluttered storytelling for brands, exhibitors, and audiences at movie theatres nationwide,” sells the idealized setting as “an immersive, distraction free environment,” brags about our desirability, affluence, and education, brands us as “the most desirable audience around,” says were “receptive, responsive, engaged and happy,” even as it calls us the “captive cinema audience,” which may also shed some light as to why the M&M’s gang shows up so early. There’s car commercials, smartphone commercials, insurance commercials, perfume commercials, television show commercials, even commercials of commercials, I think, though amid the digital audiovisual captivity, one’s not entirely sure. At some point, the previews role, and if you’re still glued to your seat—how could you not be—the main attraction, alas, arrives, though you may only know because there’s been a subtle, or not so subtle, change in the lighting, as the relentless digital assault of imagery, color, light, and sound has so overwhelmed your senses as to render you temporarily senseless.
Then, in the latter quarter of the year, something changed. At this very distressed moment, when one is dumbstruck, by Screenvision, National Cinemedia, and the likes of AMC, Cinemark, Regal, Coca-Cola, Mars, Lincoln, Ford, Volvo, Verizon, LG, Fox, and State Farm, even the stylishly shot Charlize Theron, modeling in a gold-metallic dress and accoutrement amid a clear pool of blue water in the desert at sunset, is but a fading mirage, and all appears lost, including the film you paid entry for and is just about to roll, something, in fact, quite real happened, I believe. There was a definite change in mood, and tone, on a barely noticeable level, at first, and then after a few moments of adjustment, there the actor was, coming into focus, as if he were right there on stage, suddenly, as clear as day—Ryan Gosling, looking back at me.
Addressing us from what appeared to be a cozy anteroom in a film studio, consisting of perhaps a director’s chair, a mounted film camera, a large film reel canister or two, and other film-studio anteroom paraphernalia, as preternaturally relaxed, intent, and present as in his films, I could not discern his words at first, overcome by the preshow sensorial siege, but they, calm, incisive, and distinct, soon became clear. The actor was introducing the screening of his film by talking about the sheer effort, determination, coordination, time, and volume required to accurately produce it—about 1,500 jobs created involving countless man hours—technical advisors, production assistants and coordinators, script supervisors, drivers, music mixers, location scouts, costumers, casting associates, riggers, grips, gaffers, camera operators, stunt doubles, compositors and myriad other VFX crew, special effects technicians, foley artists, sound engineers, set designers, painters, propmakers, foremen, assistant directors, makeup artists, hair stylists, art directors, producers, executive producers, a director of photography, actors, and the director coordinating it all, Damien Chazelle—a scale so prodigious it was requisite to faithfully recreate the monumental event that actually happened—in the sky, not something we had to imagine, draw, or color, to the tune of nearly $60 million—so we could see the film on the big screen, the way it was meant to be seen, with Gosling at the center of it all.
It struck me as clear as a bell—this is it, this is why I’m here, at this moment. No longer knocked around by 11.1-multichannel surround sound–enhanced XD preshow audiovisuals, I knew then why, when all was lost and seemed senseless, why I had put up with it—the prohibitive prices; the pervasive, nauseous aroma of chemically saturated popcorn; the late arrival who sits directly in front of you in a half-empty theatre, obscuring your view, when you’ve been sitting there for a good 20 minutes; the frigid cold, that takes your mind to a deserted cell in Bagram or Guantanamo Bay; and the unwise expenditure of precious time. As if a brilliant beam of gold sunshine suddenly pierced through a turbulent, merciless sky, my body picked up, I came to attention, my senses and cells refocused and were repurposed; I was no longer captive. This was my chance, my one true shot, because I knew, at home, I would likely never watch the film when it became available, not with some 25 films in this queue and another 25 in that, and more from a previously deleted queue, being just the tip of the iceberg—a lousy metaphor nowadays—and with tens of thousands otherwise available, besides all the unseen television series as well, unless perhaps if it came on FX or somewhere, with commercials, and there’s just more necessary and productive things to do at home, and I would likely never see many of the others, either.
No, I was in my element, it was Gosling and me, together again, and despite everything, these were professionals, and the show would go on, It was essential, meaningful, and real enough. The digital carnival experience was over, Mephistopheles had vanished, and with him his screen assistant. Amid the others, intimacy enhanced because of the surprisingly small number in attendance, it was just Ryan and me, and nothing else mattered.
(Too Big To Fail: Adweek, AMC Theatres, Box Office Mojo, Center for Science in the Public Interest, Cinemark USA, Fashion Gone Rogue, The Globe and Mail (Canada), IMDB, Regal Theatres, M&M’s® USA, Macrotrends, National CineMedia, The Numbers, Screenvision Media, Variety, The Washington Post.)
(This review continues.)
© 2019 John Tyler/24 Hours