Reading the tea leaves: The Future of Cinema as described by Misters Spielberg and Lucas

Part One: Of Box Offices and Bullion

This is part one of a series.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, last week Steven Spielberg and George Lucas gave a talk about the changes in film distribution at the University of Southern California. I’d like to take some time looking at their ideas.

Parts of their talk have been widely discussed, of those the most discussion has been about Mr. Spielberg’s concept of a tiered pricing system at the movie theater.

He envisions a system where "you're gonna have to pay $25 for the next Iron Man, you're probably only going to have to pay $7 to see Lincoln." Essentially, big budget action films are going to get higher ticket prices and art house films could potentially even come down in price.

Mr. Lucas countered with the idea that film distribution might move toward a Broadway model, where fewer movies are released, they stay in the theater longer (he said for a year), and ticket prices are much higher.

It’s not clear from the reporting whether or not these ideas are something Mr. Lucas or Mr. Spielberg want to see happen or if these are just models they see coming.

I suspect the latter, and I have some thoughts.

First, it is hard to argue that there won’t be a huge change in movie distribution. Ticket prices are rising, almost at a monthly rate it seems, and something is going to give.

Using a tiered pricing system, as Mr. Spielberg suggests, creates a hierarchy in film. On the surface, the big budget films - the Star Treks, the Fast and the Furiouses, the Captain Americas - suddenly become event movies, the elite films that you only get to go to two or three times a year. While the art house films - the Anna Karenina or the Beasts of the Southern Wild - will become more commonplace, and therefore more mundane.

So, while seeing big budgets in the theater may be more of a special experience, it is likely that moving to this system will actually privilege the art films. If, after all, a family of four can afford tickets to an art film for about the same price as one ticket to a big budget movie, then which one are they more likely to attend? It is reasonable to assume that viewership for the Lincolns will probably increase.

Except.

Let’s face it. Even when the art house films are basically free, there isn’t a huge draw for them - the ones that play on HBO or PBS or Netflix simply do not have big audiences. So why would they pay to go see them in the movie theater?

And with the big budget films so readily available, either through Netflix or RedBox, or... less legal channels, how often do you really think people will pay the inflated movie prices? More likely they will skip the theater and see things at home.
And that spells the end of the movie theater. At least as we currently know it.

In film school it was drilled into us: movies were the first (and one of the only) art forms that originated in the working class. Unlike ballet or theatre or opera, cinema was made for the masses, and it became popular with them well before the upper class became enamored with it.

This tiered pricing system, or even more increased pricing envisioned in Mr. Lucas’s Broadway model, is tantamount to taking the movies away from the working class.  By taking the movies - popular big budget fare - out of the price range of the average American, and only leaving the films beloved by the intellectual class, we are essentially making cinema elitist.  

Make no mistake, it is class warfare.

It means forcing the majority of people to forgo the movie experience, especially for the types of films they like the most.

And movies - all movies, from the biggest of big budget spectacles to the smallest of low budget avant-garde experiments, are supposed to be seen on the big screen, with an audience.  There is a group experience that heightens the emotional response to the film – the emotional response that is necessary for films to work – that is almost always lost in solitary home viewing.

That emotional response, that magic and spectacle is inherent to the allure of cinema. If we lose that we are left with something different, something quieter and less ritualistic. We are left with television.

Which is fine and good and influential in its own right and in its own way, but speaks with a different voice and a different power. We are stronger with both.

I find it hard to believe that movie theaters are hurting as much as they claim they are. I can’t remember a time during peak movie going hours when I haven’t been in a crowd. When I haven’t waited in a line to get into the theater.  I don’t really believe that attendance is the problem.

The problem is that the cost to make movies has gotten out of hand.

We will look at that in the next post.

 

Sources:

Bond, Paul. "Steven Spielberg Predicts 'Implosion' of Film Industry." The Hollywood Reporter. June 12, 2013. Accessed June 27, 2013. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steven-spielberg-predicts-implosion-film-567604.