When commercials started appearing in North American movie theatres, about two decades ago, some of us saw them as a discourteous intrusion and considered it our duty to hiss at them. This did no good, of course, but those futile little scenes of the 1980s came to mind this season when the disastrous news about recent movie attendance began appearing.
Audiences may be increasing slightly during the long heat wave, but for 19 weeks in a row, through all of the spring and much of the summer, fewer North Americans went to the movies than during the same period in 2004; and 2004 was worse than 2003. For the movie business, it was the longest losing streak in two decades, part of a downward trend that may be worse in Canada than in the United States. Even Albertans, whom Statistics Canada calls "Canada's most avid moviegoers," are showing up less often at the box office.
We can hardly blame it all on commercials. DVDs (which now appear only four months after a film opens), televised movies-on-demand and the competition of the Internet have all helped empty the theatres. The low level of recent Hollywood filmmaking may have had more effect than anything else. The list of movies that have recently arrived, or are soon to come, sounds like an industry-wide confession of creative bankruptcy. There's a new Batman, a new Herbie, an adaptation of the Bewitched TV series, another Pink Panther, a fourth version of The Bad News Bears, etc. It looks like a failure of nerve among the people running the studios. They are slowly moving toward a new house rule: Produce nothing that hasn't been produced before.
But the commercials were an early symbol of disdain. They seemed to demonstrate that theatre operators are like little children, forever trying to figure out how much they can get away with. Raise the ticket prices. Put more commercials on the screen with the sound jacked up to infuriating levels. Apply airport pricing to the concession stand (you have to pay this much because you can't go elsewhere). Cut the cleaning staff and leave the theatres dirty.
Advertising increased on the principle of creeping tolerance. If we put up with two commercials for a while, why not give us three? If we kept coming, try four. After the hissing in the theatres stopped, owners assumed that we had adapted to the new order. We hadn't. We had simply fallen into a sullen silence.
After all these years, some, like me, still grit our teeth and acknowledge that we're so desperate to see movies on a big screen with an audience that we'll tolerate almost any indignity. Other patrons apparently decided that enough was enough. They began staying home. Even if they saw movies on commercial TV, they at least had a mute button to protect themselves.
Meanwhile, a company named Screenvision proved, to its own satisfaction, that a commercial seen in a movie house (where there's nothing else to look at) will be remembered longer than if it's seen at home. Another company, Arbitron, claimed to have found that most people don't mind theatre commercials at all. Still, mild resistance continued. In Portland, Ore., a designer named Jason Thompson founded the Captive Motion Picture Audience of America (CMPAA). On his Web site he collects articles opposing theatre commercials and predicts eventual victory for his side. But theatre owners, grossing hundreds of millions of dollars a year from advertisers, are reluctant to change their ways.
While theatre chains were annoying the audience, the bosses of the big Hollywood studios were mistreating the people who wrote, directed and acted in what everyone unfortunately calls "product."
Hollywood now contains an army of MBAs who studied marketing, the art of separating consumers from their money. Most of them, however, seem to have missed the lectures on what business writers sometimes call "protecting the brand." They have no sense of how to nurture and maintain artists. They seem to regard talent as a necessary evil at best, in fact, mainly a source of trouble. Often, by inadvertence that is as bad as malice, they casually destroy it.
For years Eddie Murphy has seemed to me the most spectacular proof of Hollywood's death wish. In 1982, he went to Los Angeles as a brilliant and original comedian, a performer of wondrously insolent charm. But years of misbegotten scripts and weary remakes have turned him into a brassbound hack. In 2000, he made The Adventures of Pluto Nash, which in genre terms was as close to an all-bases-covered production as Hollywood has ever attempted. It was a science-fiction Mafia action comedy with toilet jokes. In the year 2087 the Mafia is trying to take over Murphy's nightclub on the moon; Murphy flees with his trusty bodyguard-robot (Randy Quaid), who is sensitive, temperamental and desperate to have sex with other robots.
Twelve writers worked on that script, the production cost about US$100-million, and when it was finished no one could imagine who in the world would pay to see it. After two years of languishing in a vault, it finally appeared in theatres, to the delight of no one. Less than one-twentieth of the investment came back, and online comments from members of the public never rose above "not as bad as everyone says."
The Golden Raspberry Award Foundation, which hands out the Razzies, picked it as the worst comedy in 25 years. A year later, when Murphy appeared in Daddy Day Care, a Los Angeles Times critic expressed just about everybody's view: "What in the world happened to Eddie Murphy's career?"
Despite this kind of outrage, studios always find a way to make a profit. The theatre owners, however, are suffering. Are we approaching the point where multiplexes showing product will start closing, as the single-auditorium theatres did a generation ago? Or will some be kept alive artificially, subsidized by studios as a way to introduce the public to the new DVDs, the main source of profit?
Otherwise, we long-suffering patrons face a bitter future. Moviegoing will consist mainly of watching DVDs at home, with occasional visits to festivals where senior citizens will gather to remember the excitement of old-time moviegoing while a few pensioners do their best to make out in the back row.