I’ve been thinking about all the problems in American film right now and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two main factors that are killing it, and they are so closely connected that they might as well be the same thing.
One is the cost of marketing and advertising a film. The other is the studio cabal which essentially dominates the theaters and squeezes out any competition. Why are they connected? Because when they can’t simply threaten a theater to fill their screens with their films, they roll over the other films with their huge advertising budgets. Which would you rather have in your theater: a little film of quality that has terrific word of mouth, or a 200 million dollar behemoth that has posters and TV commercials and saturates every corner of the media world for the week before it opens? A small film really cannot compete on that level.
There is also declining DVD sales, but that is really an economic problem. There’s not much you can do about Tower Records closing and most of the other DVD outlets. I’m not convinced that piracy, at least right now, is contributing very much to this decline.
But, the trends are clear: once a film hits DVD, it’s value is going down.
Now, films before the 80’s had a very simple model. They played in the theaters and that was it. VHS came along around the same time as cable and as foreign sales started picking up, and all that changed the game, but before that, a theatrical run was about all you could make your money from.
Now, with piracy and declining DVD taking its toll, theatrical seems to be the best option to make money. After all, attendance is fairly steady and people still like going to the movies.
So why is it that an industry was once able to make its money in the theaters alone and now it can’t? And the answer is in the first paragraph. Only a few films can afford to compete against the studios. Niche markets are ready and willing to spend money, but good luck getting a screen near one of them.
So what can be done about this? Outside of government intervention, there isn’t much. But remember what happened to the music business?
The studios controlled the music business in the same way. They only put out huge bands that cost too much and others had trouble competing. When music became free, it was a disaster for the studios and for a lot of artists. But it also allowed smaller bands and different bands to find their audience and make some money on the road. From the consumer point of view, the internet was the best thing ever for music as it opened up competition that was shut out before.
Could the same thing happen in films? I think it could, but theaters have to be opened up to competition because that’s the only equivalent filmmakers have to a live show, ie. making money.