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iPods vs. the Theater

Every day I run into people who tell me that the new digital, personal entertainment revolution will be "the death blow for the the theater system."  Proponents tout that "never before has anyone had the choice for personally scheduled entertainment that we have today." 

This commentary just makes me sigh and shake my head in disgust.  I am not disgusted because I believe these claims, but am rather disgusted by the lack of understanding of history of the person making the claims.

While the folks who bring up these claims are correct that we are at the most forward level of technological evolution, we are hardly the first group of people to have access to self-chosen entertainment venues.  In the past, however, this opportunity was reserved for kings, presidents and emperors. The news flash to this "Personal-Entertainment-Killed-the-Theater" chorus line is that, as history clearly shows us, those who have had access to personalized entertainment on demand in the past did not abandon the forms of public entertainment in lieu of these private entertainments.  (Just as folks have not abandoned lovemaking in lieu of personal gratification.)

For example, Caesar could have held any killing field or drama in his own home, yet he had reserved seats at the Coliseum and Amphitheater, both of which he attended regularly with the commoners all around him. All leaders who have had access to these private shows, have yearned to watch these extravaganzas with others at least some of the time because there is an element of community that can only be had in that environment. 

This is most starkly shown in the case of Abraham Lincoln.  After the Civil War, there were a lot of folks who wanted him dead and he knew this.  It would have been easy to have any theatrical troupe perform in the White House, yet he chooses to leave his security and go to Ford's theater to watch the play with a crowd of people.  It was that important to him.  His subsequent death at the hand of John Wilkes Boothe was a risk he was willing to take.

Okay, so if the theater is so important, than why is attendance down all across the nation?  (You can read the exact figures at the National Organization of Theater Owners website.)  The reason is quite simple. 

Six corporations own every studio in the Hollywood system that creates or authorizes all theatrical content.  The corporations that own these studios are folks like NewsCorp, Time, Viacom, and, of course, General Electric.  These corporations invested in the studio system as a pure profit making enterprise, not as a way to create original content.  They see the Hollywood Studio System as any normal factory.  Make more of products that prove popular and, when in a slump, invest more into new innovations.

As such, they created carbon clones of past films and TV shows.  When theatrical attendance lowers, they start investing more cash into special effects, bloating the budgets of King Kong to $237 million and Superman Returns to $250 million.  (These two films shared the "most expensive movie ever made" title, separated by just over six months!)

Meanwhile, the folks who used to go to theaters to watch films are losing interested and getting jaded.  They don't want more explosions, or more dinosaurs, or more effects...they want stories that they can actually sink their teeth into. $60 million cheaper to make, Narnia made nearly double the money that King Kong did in the theaters because it actually had a storyline that you could care about and get into.

Additionally, film watchers want films they can enjoy in the company of others, no matter how many iPods, mini TVs, or HD dashboards they possess.  To see these elements combined and proven, without any snappy special effects, just go to a midnight showing of Monty Python & the Holy Grail, Rocky Horror Picture Show, or Fight Club at any art theater in America.  These places are packed out because people know they're seeing a classic movie and they can be with others enjoying those films.  Indie-phenom Napoleon Dynamite became amazingly successful because it locked into this fact about people.

So, what's it mean when there is a restless public that wants to feel connected with others, but is not feeling their voice heard by the institution that controls mass entertainment?  Well, historically, it means that something will rise that will compete with the status quo for this entertainment form, much as nobility-sponsored painters provided competition to the church-sponsored painters during the Renaissance.

Much like the Renaissance, methods of art and creation are now becoming much more widely available.  Additionally, the theater owners are becoming disenfranchised with Hollywood's requirements for greater and greater technology while taking bigger and bigger cuts of the profits, without providing content that actually fills their seats.  As such, history would imply that some group will unite and provide the theaters with the content that will actually fill them, competing with the stagnating system that currently exists. 

If that occurs, then there would be a second distribution network for the theaters, outside of the corporate controlled Hollywood Studio System. For microfilmmakers, this would double your odds of getting the theatrical distribution that most filmmakers crave, especially as a competitor will have to be content-driven if they are to win over the disenfranchised and the jaded moviegoing public.

In the end , such a competitive environment would cause the stagnating system to either die or re-structure itself radically to compete.  Such a war for the theaters will provide a very different filmmaking paradigm, which may well reward both filmmakers and moviegoers alike.

If history is any indicator, then we as microfilmmakers should hold on to our hats and get ready for anything, because it could be a bumpy ride!

God Bless,

Jeremy Hanke
Microfilmmaker Magazine

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