The studios MUST face reality: This is NOT a "slump."

Someone has to stop the madness.

To listen to the histrionics of the film industry trade papers, we are now in the midst of “the longest slump in modern Hollywood history” following the innability of “War of The Worlds” to not make as much money over the July 4th weekend as “Spider-Man 2” did one year ago.

The time has come for two realities to be faced. Firstly, that the term “slump” is actually studio optimism disguised as doom-and-gloom pessimism since, after all, it suggests that the current run of lessened grosses is a valley among peaks. Secondly, that they are almost certainly wrong, and that if “recovery” is defined as a sudden and prolonged rise is boxoffice then “recovery” is all but impossible at this point.

In dispelling the “slump” myth, the myths of the slump causes must also be put to rest: In all rational likelihood, This is NOT some kind of nationwide uprising against sequels, prequels, remakes and films based on comic books. This is NOT happening because some huge swath of Americans are “boycotting” Hollywood because they disagree with the political beliefs of actors. There are NOT huge movements mobilized in sympathetic support of Jennifer Anniston, nor in organized disgust at Tom Cruise. This will NOT be solved by going the Mel Gibson route and throwing anti-semetic torture-porn onto the screen to lure the “values voters.” Dorm-ensconed Freshmen downloading bootlegs are NOT the main problem. L. Brent Bozell, Ted Baer, James Dobson, Daniel Lapin, Debbie Schlussel and Michael Medved do NOT know what they are talking about.

This comes down to two simple phenomena: DVDs and Video On Demand. The DVD format has shifted the post-theatrical market from film-rental to film-ownership. Netflix and VOD have eclisped the rental markets, and the windows are shrinking. The throwaway joke in Woody Allen’s “Hollywood Ending” about theatrical releases being advertisements for the home-video market has become a simple industry truth: DVD, not theaters, is how the majority of potential customers are preferring to watch their movies.

This is about business, markets and paradigms. The market has shifted, the business is tipping in another direction and there is a new paradigm. The sooner studios accept this, the more likely they will endure. The home/DVD market is secure and growing, and thus safe. It’s the theaters that are in trouble, and if the studios continue to tie their fortunes too heavily to them they too will be in trouble. I don’t pretend to be some kind of authority on the subject, but as someone currently employed in both the film retail and theatre business and as a longtime watcher of the industry, I believe the following steps to be the major things that need to happen for the industry to survive this major consumer-driven shift in it’s structure:

1. The Theater Industry Will Need To Shrink. With respect to the theater biz: There is now less market for your “product” than there was before. In business, that means you need to make yourself smaller so that less money can be more of a profit for you. That’s just simple math. The first move to make, to my mind: Start closing and/or consolidating the multiplexes. Small arthouse and specialty theaters are in no real danger, as the operate with minimal cost and serve devoted niche audiences, the DVD age does not hurt them any more than the invention of poster-prints has hurt The Louvre. It’s the multiplexes that are taking the hit. Multiplexes were designed to be filmgoing for the age of shopping malls, and that function has been supplanted by DVDs on sale IN shopping malls.

Now, to my fellow Cinephile readers, take your Elitism Caps off for a second and lets all admit what we all know: Seeing films on the big screen does not carry the same importance to the majority of the public that it does to us. You know it, deal with it. Now put that Elitism Cap back on, and ask yourself: Would it be even remotely a bad thing for US if the majority of the public stopped going to movie theaters regularly? Do you REALLY enjoy the presence of the majority of the public when you go to the movies? The “majority of the public,” once they enter movie theaters, tend to be loud, obnoxious people who can’t disengage a cell phone to save their life, bring squealing babies because they can’t be bothered to find a sitter and who’s ticket-purchasing habits ensure the continued blight upon the movie landscape of films starring Jennifer Lopez etc.

In other words, would it be a BAD THING if the “mainstream” movie-theater industry simply accepted that the “Monster In-Law” audience is going to wait for the DVD and instead tip their efforts toward catering to the audience that’s still going to the theater: Devoted cinephiles and film-buffs of all stripes who will demand edible food and clean, well-policed with a zero tolerance policy toward cell phones and will reward those establishments that provide such with patronage? Allowing, of course, for the continued “mass presence” at the big “Batman“-sized communal filmgoing events, which will continue as big draws on the “big movie/big screen” pretext.

2. Accept direct-to-DVD as a major market. There’ve already been rumblings of this. Face it: Some films just WILL do better on DVD, at theatrical releases don’t help them. Right now, “Cinderella Man” is a theatrical failure, but everyone “knows” it’s going to be big on DVD where the older, busy audience that it’s aimed at will see it and love it. Already, the arthouse and foriegn markets have seen MAJOR increases thanks to their availability on DVD. Right now, the only reason many “prestige” films open in theaters is because they NEED TO to qualify for the awards season. DVD is the main market for films like “Yes” or even “Cinderella Man,” so why not just be up front about it?

What I’m saying here is… this is no slump, it’s a new world. And if properly handled, it can wind up a better one for casual and devoted film fans alike. But first, we have to stop the doomsaying.

Is 9/11 no longer a movie taboo?

Warning: The following is likely to be controversial, and also discusses elements of at least two recently released major films that should definately by considered major spoiler material.

As we’re all aware when it comes to movies, especially “mainstream” Hollywood releases, there are certain things that while not against any of the MPAA rules you’re just “not supposed to do.” For the last five years, the #1 top entry on that list has certainly been using 9/11 imagery as any kind of referential counterpoint. Exceptions exist, of course, for serious or topical films and even then ONLY in the most tasteful and sombre way.

Above all else, a certain “universal understanding” has prevailed: You’re “not supposed to” use the visual touchstones of 9/11 as an element of emotional manipulation for a fictional onscreen event. Or, in plain english: It’s been understood as “wrong” or “too soon” to deliberately render something in your movie in resemblance to 9/11 iconography in order to stir the audience’s collective emotional memory to help the onscreen goings-on achieve a desired emotional effect. It would be “callous, too soon and grossly innapropriate,” right? This is where we’ve, for the most part, been for a long time now.

But now, here we have “War of The Worlds,” which BLUNTLY evokes the key iconography of 9/11 in tremendously powerful ways. There’s been no official yes or no from Spielberg, of course, but LOTS of people are picking up on this and in my opinion there’s simply no way most of this could be an accident: “WOTW” seems very obviously to base the “look and feel” of it’s Alien attacks on the “look and feel” of 9/11 and it’s aftermath, and it does so to (I think) striking dramatic effect.

Consider, first, the obvious parts: Unlike most big action spectacles where the visual keynote of mass-destruction is fiery explosions, WOTW is all about ash (from death ray blasted humans) and gray concrete dust. Amid the initial Alien attack, Cruise’s Ray Ferrier is shown not so much as fleeing the Tripod itself, but fleeing the massive cloud of dust and ash it causes. I can’t see how it can be overlooked or explained away, that the results serve to deftly mirror the ash-strewn streets and the crashing “wave of dust” we all remember from the captured footage of the day. Later, scenes showing hastily-assembled camps for refugee humans covered with colorful, hand-made signs seeking missing loved ones extremely reminiscient of the same purpose signs that covered much of NY post-attack. Finally, the film twice returns to the surreal image of empty human clothing drifting down from the sky in a manner that recalls the slow showers of office paper that continued long after the towers fell.

And then the more subtle possible inferences: The film never leaves the geography of a largely straight line between the New York and Boston areas… the destination and origin of the hijacked 9/11 planes. When the Ferrier family bunks down for the night in a basement, they awake to find huge sections of the neighborhood crushed by planes that have fallen from the sky. The big “this is bigger than we thought” reveal is that the Tripod war machines have been waiting buried underneath Earth’s soil for a long time… “sleeper cells,” perhaps?

I don’t mean any of this as criticism, just observation. This is Speilberg’s stock in trade after all, no? His ability to understand and use the visual and thematic touchstones of his audience’s collective minds to increase emotional investment in his films. This is why “Schindler’s List” looks like the b&w photographs by which most people already “know” the holocaust, and why “Saving Private Ryan’s” battle scenes mirror the hand-held look of WWII-era archival footage. It’s my arithmetic that “War of The Worlds” looks like 9/11 because 9/11 is now our #1 go-to mental picture of what we “know” mass-scale tragic devastation looks like.

What I’m asking is, since WOTW has now come out and seems well on the way to being a boxoffice success using this formula… does this mean that “thou shalt reference 9/11 for dramatic effect” commandment has now been retired? Will WOTW and Summer 2005 be remembered, then, as the movie and the year wherein in finally became “okay” to deal with the memory of 9/11 in abstract or even allegorical ways? If so, what does that mean? Will ash-clouds and softly-drifting debris now replace fireballs and clashing steel as the action-movie “ka-boom” effects of choice? Does it mean we’re that much closer to films set around or in relation to the attacks or, even a 911 movie?

Come to think of it, we may have already crossed this line earlier this summer. What about some of the subtle post-911 era concepts at work in “Batman Begins?” Amid the main thrust of Batman’s origin is a big villian plot with an eerily familiar ring to it: A shadow army of moralistic terrorists seek to destroy a “corrupt and decadent” Western city by instilling widescale panic among the citizens, a key element of which involves driving a hijacked mass-transport vehicle into a massive corporate tower that dominates the skyline. The terrorist mastermind behind the plot, it must be noted, hides out in a remote mountain range and even has an Arabic name: Ra’s Al Ghul (“The Demon’s Head.”)

Anyway, thats what I think. I’d like to hear what some of you think: Am I seeing things that aren’t there or am I onto something? And, if so, is this a good development? A bad one?