uring the pandemic, once thriving movie theaters suddenly turned into ghost towns. And even though many have reopened since then, numerous people are still staying away. In 2022, U.S. box office receipts saw a 30 percent decrease from those of 2019. According to a Gallup Poll, 61 percent of adults did not go to the movies in 2021, compared to an average of 32 percent from 2001-2007.
It might be easy to blame the pandemic for the recent downturn in box office revenues. But the truth of the matter is that over the last decade or so, box office receipts actually had already been trending lower. Another Gallup question found that movie-going was lower in 2019 than it was 2001.
The blame could also be placed on recent streaming options, inflation, gaming, or even the oversaturation and unsustainability of megaplexes. The cause of a downturn in big screen viewing may be disputable, but it certainly is worth examining the product itself.
In other words, maybe it’s simply a problem with the movies that are globally distributed.
One consideration might simply be the content of what’s accessible. When you look at the 100 highest grossing films ever according to The Number.com, the top ten titles are extremely large budgeted, special effects productions. Additionally, with a partial exception for Titanic (1997), they can all be categorized as action movies. In fact, only two out of the 100 (Bohemian Rhapsody, 2018, and Ni Hao, Li Huan Ying 2021) are clearly dramas.
It’s hard to argue with numbers, but if seats are not being filled, that list is emblematic at best.
Perhaps the overused and formulaic action genre has run its course leaving nothing to fill the void. It seems the industry has cornered itself into a niche, and so committing to original, unique, and groundbreaking films capable of inspiring new directions seems beyond the pale to producers. Hollywood does make those types of films, but far too few are given the distributive reach to have any considerable impact on more mainstream movie-going sensibilities.
More than 10 years ago, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard declared that film had died and that the auteur is no longer needed because the advances in technology have made the producer ubiquitous. He may have not been predicting the emergence of TikTok and Instagram, but he was clearly onto something.
If the cycle of conventional action movies remains unbroken, numbers just may continue to dwindle. Without something else to attract people to the big screen to witness something beyond superhero protagonists, the movie theater universe just might be, well, doomed. Is there no one around who can save it?
Perhaps it’s time for a revolution in film to take place. After all, critical film movements, like the mid 20th Century waves seen in France, Germany, Italy, India, and Japan, did not just come out of a vacuum. They were creative responses to traditional dynamics in cinema at the time. Embracing and promoting the value of more artistic films might just be the enlightenment that’s needed.
Maybe a good place to start is by providing more support to independent filmmakers so that they can maintain the integrity of their art rather than being forced to compromise with a seemingly unsympathetic industry.
Where art stops and commercialism begins is not a new question. Yet, film as art is not something that is particularly on the mind of the average moviegoer and the debate on whether Avatar is art or not seems almost a waste of time. It’s rather beside the point.
Arguments can be made that some filmmakers are artists but that others are facilitators. All have vision, but vision can mean a lot of things. One can have a vision about reality while another could have a vision about how to pull resources together. But whether we call somebody an artist or not, it’s still a mental exercise.
It may be important to look at trends like the growing popularity of streaming, or whether the pandemic closed theaters or not. But we still have to think about artists, about non-Big Six studio filmmakers who comprise a larger part of the industry. Independents produce more films, maintaining a margin of 4 to 1 over the past ten years.
Supporting independent filmmakers and promoting their work around the world just might provide material that reduces that feeling of “I’ve seen this movie before.” People might become inquisitive in new ways and thus be inclined to visit theaters more regularly.
The image of shuttered theaters might seem right out of a post-apocalyptic film or a film about unrequited love. It could suggest the setting of a horror, noir, avant-garde movie, or be what’s central to an existential documentary, for that matter. Hopefully one day marquises will reflect all kinds of content, and any such dispiriting images of vacant facades are only available for viewing on the screen inside where they belong.