I once asked my Mom why she doesn’t go to the theater to see movies. She responded quickly:
“They don’t make movies for me, so I don’t go see them.”
To be fair, that argument is a paradox—if people my mother’s age, the baby boomer generation, flocked relentlessly to the movie theaters and spent their hard-earned money on big screen entertainment, maybe things would be different. But like my mother insists, there’s nothing out there to hook them in the first place. So instead, movie studios focus on the youngsters with cash to burn, passing on small dramas and adult fare in favor of major blockbusters with brand-awareness. That’s how Hollywood stays in business.
But is it working? While finally box office tallies aren’t in for 2011, a look earlier this year predicted less-than-fruitful earnings for the studios. Gerry Lopez, an executive at AMC Theaters, told the LA Times, “I think it all boils down to the quality of the movies. This year we just haven’t had those kind of movies that cut across all quadrants of age, race and income.” Michael Lynton, chief exec at Sony Pictures Entertainment, echoed the sentiment: “So far there is just nothing terribly compelling about what we’re delivering as an industry.”
The major players in the movie world are currently struggling with two major issues: to keep bringing in a profit and keep people coming back to the theater. Their latest strategy kills two birds with one stone: 3D. The 3D experience started trickling in to theaters in anticipation of James Cameron’s Avatar, and after that movie became the highest grossing movie of all time, the studios went all in on the technology. Whereas Cameron saw the stereoscopic advancement as another stylistic choice for filmmakers, an art, studios saw dollar signs. 3D made a movie an event, one people couldn’t replicate entirely in the comfort of their own home, while simultaneously bringing additional profits. It was a win-win.
Cut to 2011, a year where each weekend sees the release of a 3D movie and grosses are on par or lower than when the price-hike didn’t exist. When a movie bombs, it’s bad. When a 3D movie bombs (sorry, Conan the Barbarian 3D), it’s even worse. Obviously, 3D isn’t going anywhere any time soon (and it shouldn’t—see Hugo for an example of the technology used to perfection), but on the surface, Hollywood’s get-rich-quick scheme appears to be backfiring.
Universal Studios head honcho Ron Meyer recently told a film festival audience, “It’s great to win awards and make films that you’re proud of and make money, but your first obligation is to make money and then worry about being proud of what you do.” That’s a fine strategy and one that clearly explains the rush for 3D “event” pictures, but isn’t Ron Meyer forgetting someone important here? My mother (and the demographic she represents) would like to go the movies too. My suggestion: sell movies as “adult.”
This week, director Steve McQueen’s NC-17 drama Shame, a movie no one thought could find a home with its frank portrayal of sex addiction, opens in limited theaters. The NC-17 rating is a known taboo in the industry, a curse that destines a film to mediocre business. But Fox Searchlight took a bold step in releasing Shame unedited, leaving Michael Fassbender’s breathtaking performance completely intact (and bare). The move may payoff in a big way—AMC Theaters, known for having a ban on NC-17 movies, will feature Shame.
If the movie succeeds at the box office, studios may be willing take the plunge on financing or acquiring more adult-themed movies, but the mere fact that the movie made it into a major chain is inspiring. For the first time in recent memory, a movie is waving its NC-17 flag with pride. It’s an event film, paralleling Avatar’s pop culture idiosyncrasy, but with a price tag dwarfed by Transformers and comic movie titans. On a theater marquee, Shame will stand out amongst a sea of PG and PG-13s. That sounds like the real win-win.
People in high places acknowledge that they don’t make movies for my Mom. They understand the paradox too. But in the wake of Shame, and $100 million successes like The Social Network and Black Swan, there feels like a new opportunity. A chance to establish a year-round slate of adult “blockbuster” movies, ones that take risks, explore realistic themes and appeal to a different crowd. Exploding robot action movies and magic fantasy epics are fine, and in 3D they can be quite spectacular—but they’re designed for a slice of the population Hollywood has been relentlessly chasing for years. There’s a crowd out there looking for movies that spark their interests (like my Mom). Someone just needs to make movies for them.