Fadeout at the Box Office: The Decline of Movie-going
Mr. Cullen teaches at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School in New York. His most recent book is Essaying the Past: How to Read, Write and Think about History. He blogs at American History Now.Everybody's a dreamer and everybody's a star,
And everybody's in movies, it doesn't matter who you are . . . .
--Ray Davies (of the Kinks), "Celluloid Heroes," 1972
Sometimes, when I drive into the parking lot of multiplex theaters, I imagine some future anthropologist trying to make sense of their bizarre presence: big concrete boxes in a sea of asphalt, scattered across suburban landscapes. The discerning observer will see that these apparently functional boxes were not quite the same (though perhaps comparably perplexing) as retail stores. Though commerce clearly took place in their front lobbies, they were divided up into compartments with seats facing a large screen in which some kind of presentation commanded collective attention. That anthropologist may reasonably speculate that these unprepossessing spaces served a function similar to provincial churches, which wouldn't be that far off: movie-going has always been at least in part a matter of transcendent longing. It would be otherwise hard to account for what otherwise might seem to be an irrational practice of people congregating to sit still and stare at a screen for hours at a time.
My imagined anthropologist was always working at some distant point in the future; I never imagined -- until recently, that is -- that a ritual so central to my existence would become remote and perhaps even bewildering in my lifetime. This notion crystallized for me last month on a prematurely autumnal Saturday afternoon when I went solo to catch 500 Days of Summer before it disappeared from theaters. (I'm among those charmed by Zooey Deschanel -- who was presented, rightly, as a true movie star -- even if I regarded the movie as something of a lost opportunity to confront the narcissistic dimensions of love.) The big surprise, I realized in retrospect, is that the theater wasn't empty. I've come to take for granted that it would be. I haven't quite gone to a show where I (or my family) are the only party at a screening, but I've been close.
It wasn't always so. To be sure, I've sat in many an empty movie theater over the years, but that's a matter of percentages, as I am an inveterate moviegoer -- I won't say cinephile, because that would excessively dignify fare that ranges from Saturday morning B-grade Disney flix with little kids to Saturday night popcorn movies with big kids, along with Oscar contenders, foreign films, and art-house documentaries with my wife, friends, or by myself. I used to worry a lot about sold-out shows (and upon discovering that I was too late, to buy tickets for another show and then slip into a front seat at the the sold-out one). That hasn't been a problem in a long time. The last time it was, about six months ago at a tiny art-house theater heavily patronized by senior citizens, serves as the exception that proves the rule.
This is, of course, anecdotal information. Yet I think it matters not only because it's a discernible shift in the experience of a regular moviegoer, but more importantly because it seems to comport with what's happening in the film business generally. Box office receipts have been somewhat stable in the last couple years, but that in large measure is because prices have gone up steadily, pumped up by gimmicks like 3D glasses that tack a few bucks onto the price of a ticket.
Of course the most important development, one that's been going on for about 25 years now, is the gradual shift in movie-watching from an experience that takes place in theaters to one that takes place at home (and, increasingly, on portable screens). It's now conventional wisdom in many quarters of the movie business that opening a film in theaters is really just part of a larger marketing strategy for DVD sales, licensing for broadcast, and other ancillary sources of income. Indeed, theatrical exhibition may lose money for films that go on to make healthy profits.
The increasingly privatized quality of movie-watching is part of a much larger transformation in the history of popular culture. To be sure, pop culture has long had a personal dimension in the realm of the written word, which displaced a once-vibrant oral tradition in pre-modern societies. But theatrical performance, broadly construed, was always a collective enterprise both in terms of production as well as consumption, as were sports and musical performance. Now, all these phenomena are widely experienced in relative isolation (the iPod listener on the subway is an ironic illustration of the point). Video games, which straddle the two, empower individual players to manipulate the circumstances of their experience, and as such are surely seen as an advance on older forms of pop culture by their enthusiasts.
It's important to note that all these forms of entertainment always have a social dimension. Even at home, you play a game or movie or song in the knowledge that others have seen or are seeing and hearing the same thing. This has also always been a big part of the joy of reading a novel, for example. But none of these activities are quite public in the way movie-going is. Or, if I may press the point, as democratic as movie-going has always been at its best.
The fact that the world is changing doesn't mean that it's changing for the worse. And in a way, it's only appropriate that movies, which mowed down earlier forms of popular culture (or, in the case of vaudeville, swallowed them entirely), should now be overshadowed and even cannibalized by newer ones. I just want to make clear that the act of leaving the house and joining a group of strangers to watch strips of celluloid, itself increasingly obsolete in an age of digital projection, has been one of life's great pleasures. Don't let it disappear without savoring it while it lasts.
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