EDITORIAL: Why aren’t movies totally dead?

At this point it’s more than just a cliché to say that movies are a dying art form. We’ve heard about declining grosses for years now and how long has it been, seriously, since you hear of anyone building a new movie theater? The movie theater experience is really nothing more than an overpriced showing of a Blu-ray disc, maybe with a little better video and audio quality. It’s gotten to the point where two tickets by themselves cost more than the digital download of the thing.

Not only that, we’re presented with more and more evidence that people love to binge-watch, and that some shows really only make sense when you watch a ton of it all at the same time. As an audience, we’re getting smart enough to see that some stories take time to tell, and that the long-form storytelling experience, whether it takes seven films or 22 episodes, can be extremely rewarding.

So, then, what to make of the fact that movies aren’t completely dead? They’re ridiculously expensive to make, often employing thousands and costing hundreds of millions. Movies can’t tell more than a two-hour story unless you’re willing to wait years for the payoff, and yet… the real surprise isn’t that movies are dying. It’s that they aren’t dead.

Sure, there’s something about the communal experience of the theater, the “date-night” aspect, the good times, but if what we’re really saying is that the whole point is the experience, why does it matter if we show a movie at all? Why not show a slideshow of flowers and cucumbers if the point is just to get a bunch of people together and go into a darkened room?

At some level the movie release itself is nothing more than an advertisement for the physical or digital release; many movies make more outside the theaters than in it, especially with long-term streaming and TV deals. But if that’s true, there has to be a more cost-effective way of advertising, especially in today’s social-media, viral-video world.

My perspective, for what it’s worth, is that movies (which is to say, theatrically released, theater-type movies with the popcorn and whatnot) still have a way to fall and that the recent leveling off of movie attendance is a blip, probably caused by the recent upturn in the economy and some pent-up desire from people to spend money. The “movie theater experience” probably hasn’t got more than another 10 years left in it on the whole… maybe by then there will be four or five movies at a single theater at the same time, but the big multiplexes will slowly shutter theater after theater as people prefer to get their cinema fix on TV or tablets. We’re just not really as hungry for communal experiences as we were 15 years ago, and we satisfy the need to be social in very different ways than we did back then. Today it’s an on-demand world and if there’s going to be anything communal about watching a movie, it’s more likely a group of friends tweeting about it at the same time.

Sure it’s a little sad to see these modern-day movie palaces go, but it’s not terribly surprising. The surprise, as I said, is that it’s taken this long.