The Culture is Fine, Thanks
Forgive me for a little anti-curmudgeon curmudgeoning, but the numbers cited in this Mary Sue post by Jamie Frevele (and the post itself, to some extent) set off all my neurons. We see these dire warnings of the demise of the movie industry at fairly regular intervals throughout the year, every year, and they’re always the same. Movies aren’t as good, it’s too expensive to go to the movies, popcorn costs a million dollars – no wonder no one wants to go! But how much of this holds up to scrutiny?
I submit: not much.
First, quality. I am never really persuaded by this argument, and we hear it all the time in all fields. Movies, music, books, politics, life. Nothing is as good as it used to be. Where’s the evidence, though? What would that kind of evidence even look like? Do we just start listing the good movies from every year and see which year wins? Because, spoiler alert, 2007 is one of the five or ten best years in the history of film. Unless we’ve crashed hard in the last four years, this argument is overstated. Not to mention the ways in which it (inevitably) ignores the proliferation of choice over the last couple decades. We have tons of movies from all kinds of countries. And lots of them are really good! (The aforementioned 2007, for instance, featured the American release of a 2006 German film called The Lives of Others, which I consider the best movie of the last decade.) This argument requires some kind of recency bias in order to work, and any amount of scrutiny blows it apart.
Second, cost. The numbers don’t even bear this out. As the original article and the Mary Sue post both note, revenues are up this year. Ticket sales are down, sure, but actual dollar bills going into the pockets of the theaters and studios are increasing. For a large number of people it clearly isn’t too expensive to go to the movies. Further, these people seem to think 3D (which, full disclosure, I hate with the fire of a thousand suns) is something that justifies increased ticket prices. Which brings me to what Frevele says on this subject:
Personally, I was not thrilled that I had to pay about $17 to see Fright Night in 3D, as much as I liked it. But I could not find a good showtime for a regular version of the movie, so I had to spend the $17 on a movie that really, really, really didn’t have to be in 3D. I’m sure I’m not the only member of the moviegoing public who kind of resented having this decision made for me, or making the assumption that I require gimmicky fads to see a vampire horror comedy whose virtue lies in the script and performances and not the odd drop of blood that OMG LOOKS SO CLOSE TO ME.
I think the only answer to this is, “But you did pay $17, right?” The theater set a price for a product that it thought people would pay, and the theater was correct. The only crime here seems to be that Frevele wanted even more consumer surplus than she got. It just isn’t compelling.
What is going on here, which I think is not being properly appreciated by people inside the industry, is a demand-side issue rather than a supply-side one. Theaters aren’t fundamentally failing to provide a product that people want to buy; they are responding to the fact that people have a lot of options and are choosing to exercise more of them. For some people, staying at home to watch a movie using Netflix’s instant streaming service is worth more than a night at the movies. For some it’s catching up on a show on DVR, or renting an on-demand movie from their cable provider, or reading a book on their Kindle, or whatever. People have a lot of things they can use their time for, and many of them are opting for things they would rather do than go to the movies. The theaters, in turn, are responding to that dynamic by increasing the options they are uniquely situated to provide (things like 3D and IMAX and, apparently, 400-pound tubs of popcorn) – and they are making more money with fewer customers. Everybody is winning!
This doesn’t seem like the death of a culture to me. Just the opposite, frankly.