The REAL danger of the boxoffice slump

Entertainment-industry reporting is a strange thing, in as much as most of the “ordinary” people who are absorbing it have no real idea of what the news ever actually means. For example, many of you have probably heard that the movie industry is in a “slump” in terms of movie theater ticket sales. Almost no one ever bothers to go into what this “slump” is, or what it’s supposed to mean, but the idea catches on anyway: “Hollywood is in a slump” is now an article of gospel truth in the U.S. media.

First, a definition is in order. This “slump” actually refers to the following phenomenon: For 17 weeks straight, weekend movie-ticket sales totaled less than they did on the same day last year.

And thats it. All this bruhaha boils down to is that the Studio line-graph is not running as high as last year’s. There’s no steady, bottoming-off decline in ticket sales or some dramatic downturn of major proportions, it’s simply a matter of 2005 thus far not being as overall profitable as 2004.

In every other rational industry on Earth, i.e. those not prone to engineering their financial reports into narratives as entertaining as their products, this is simply known as “the way markets work.” Things go up, things go down, some times are more profitable than others. But in Hollywood, where entire studio dynasties can rise and fall in a matter of weeks based only on the fortunes of ONE movie, the failure to defy all known laws of economics and continue to perpetually rise in profitability MUST be viewed as a cataclysm worthy of profound concern.

In my opinion, the particular hysteria that has gripped The Biz this summer is largely fueled by the studio executives’ well-documented, near-pathological need to always be correct. In a business that turns on random variables of cultural taste, the only bosses that survive are those who can “prove” to be always right in their predicitions. So, of course, everyone will tell you that they are always right, no matter what.

So goes the logic, then, that most Hollywood business-types would prefer bad news that makes their predictions look right over good news that would make them look wrong. And for at least a year now, the majority of studio predictors have been big on the doom-and-gloom: Piracy will kill the boxoffice. Too many sequels/remakes will kill the boxoffice. Ticket prices will kill the boxoffice. DVD sales will kill the boxoffice. In my estimation, the wildfire-spreading of this “slump” concept is owed to this more than any rational concern: Faced with not-great financial news, the doomsayers are playing it up because it helps makes them look right.

Doomsayer: “Batman Begins’ ONLY made seventy-million!!! Y’see, I told you that illegal downloading was going to kill us!”

Yes, truly the sky is falling, huh? And hey, isn’t Disney’s big Summer family offering a feature-length version of “Chicken Little?” Spooky…

So yeah, eventually I’m concerned but not SUPER concerned about the “slump,” and really you oughtn’t be either. It doesn’t really immediately effect any of us. What SHOULD concern us, and what does concern me, is that Hollywood sees this “slump” as a physically real thing, a lumbering monster that MUST be destroyed. And whichever film eventually “breaks the slump,” i.e. “makes more money than some other movie the same weekend last year,” will be crowned “slump-slayer.”

And thats where my worry comes in: Whatever the “slump-slayer” is, all of those eternally-retroactively-correct studio prognosticators will arrive instantaneously at the same unanimous conclusion: That “what we were doing” (read: EVERY movie that is not slump-slayer) wasn’t getting the job done, and that THIS (read: whatever sort of movie slump-slayer is) is “what the people must have been waiting for.” Whatever characteristics distinguish slump-slayer from the pack will become the dominant paradigm of mainstream filmmaking no matter what it is. If a documentary about the political structures of sexual role-play among the migratory African albino-capabera comes out and manages to make more money that whatever came out in it’s approximate weekend slot last year, knock-offs of documentaries about the political structures of sexual role-play among the migratory African albino-capabera will be playing on every other screen for the forseeable future.

Does that scare you? It scares me. It scares me because of how easily something lousy could wind up the slump-slayer and spread it’s lousiness virus-like across the movie landscape. Yes, something GOOD could become slump-slayer and we’d have the possibility of good resulting from it’s arrival, but the negative could be far worse.

I dunno about you, but I more-or-less like the current situation of cinema: I like that we back up dumptrucks full of Oscars at the door of epic fantasy trilogies. I like that costumed superheroes and Zen kung-fu masters have overthrown surly muscleheads and cops “who don’t play by the rules” as the action heroes du jour. I like that “Miss Congeniality 2” vanished without a trace, and that I haven’t had to see a Meg Ryan movie lately. I love that “Batman Begins” crushed “The Perfect Man” under it’s big rubber boot. I adore that Tarantino poured every ounce of his considerable talents into a two-films-long kung-fu/samurai/horror/mystery/action/revenge/gore epic. I worship that Robert Rodriguez, Brian Singer and Christopher Nolan treat comic-adaptations as though they’ve been assigned to preserve holy relics. This is an immensely good time for filmmaking. If the slump-slayer is, say, a “Monster In-Law”-style romcom, would the return to top-tier prominence of such drivel be anything but a total disaster?

And it could get MUCH worse: The so-called “values” crowd, Bozell, Dobson, Falwell, Baer, etc., have been doing their own “reporting” on the “slump,” and wouldn’t you know that they’re pushing their own theory of what’s going on: Namely, that the new “moral” American public are rejecting “secular” (read: not extremist-fundamentalism) Hollywood fare; and that if only Hollywood would put it’s effort into their sort of films (like, say, Mel Gibson’s torture-porn “Passion,”) the slump would end. Hopefully, they’re as wrong about this as they are about most everything else, but this should be cause for concern nonetheless: If slump-slayer is anything even remotely “moral” or “family-friendly,” watch for this crew to spin like mad that it’s success is “proof” that Americans are “rejecting” movie sex and violence in favor or “traditional morality.”

Bottom line: “The Slump” is not something for most of us to be overly-worried about. Bad filmmaking trends taking advantage of the slump (intending to or not) and poisoning the movie landscape… as far as I’m concerned we can’t be concerned ENOUGH about that. Something will break the “slump.” Pray to whatever god one such as you may worship that it’s something we could stand to see more of.

The battle continues.

One thought on “The REAL danger of the boxoffice slump

  1. Wesley Fulgham says:

    You ate 100% right. It is a great time for film now and in twenty years people will realize it. The doom and gloom sayers have always predicted the end of film. When I was a kid people thought the failure of a Ahnuld movie(the craptastic Last Action Hero) proved cinema had reached a low point. After Scheindler’s List Jurassic Park Pulp Fiction etc. they were obviously wrong(and you know the “moral values” crowd decried Pulp, and other crime flicks) So I say keep up the good work Rodregiez Tarintino Noland its a great time to be alive!


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