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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

will video kill the multiplex star?

Last Friday in my weekend preview at Film.com, I mentioned that Hollywood is suffering, with multiplex attendance way down from even the very bad summer of 2005. Well, it turns out that that’s not the case. My info last week was the latest I could find, but it was accurate only through May. In July, for instance, as Variety noted a few days ago, “the domestic box office was up nearly 15% over July 2006.” What’s more:

By late June, many were bemoaning a lackluster summer box office. That’s all changed. Overall, the summer sesh is now running 8% above a year ago in terms of domestic box office receipts, and 3% above the same frame in 2004 — the best year on record.

But it turns out that my simultaneous complaint about how there are too many damn movies opening in August — check out this ridiculous slate — is still apropos. I suggested that “it’s almost as if the studios are setting up these movies, the wide releases in particular, to fail.” And Variety suggests, if you read between the lines, that that may indeed be the case:

Too much of a good thing at the summer box office is leaving studios in an unusual predicament.

Pictures are holding so well and there’s such a crowded pack of new entrants, so they’re having to fight fiercely to keep still-strong films booked in theaters.

If the studios are trying to kill the multiplexes, this is the way to do it: Make it even harder for films to endure beyond the first few weeks. Why? Because the longer a movie plays, the bigger a share of the ticket price a multiplex gets. On opening weekend, the studios take anywhere from 70 to 95(!) percent of the price you pay for a ticket, leaving the theater with a few measly crumbs. Six weeks later, the theater could be taking as much as 65 percent of each ticket sale. But only if the damn movies are still playing six weeks later. Which isn’t happening so much this summer. From Variety again:

“It’s a dogfight. We lost a lot of second [weekend] screens for ‘Hairspray’ that we probably would have held if the marketplace wasn’t what it was,” New Line prexy of distribution David Tuckerman said.

August could prove especially frustrating since the month can often be a dumping ground. Exhibs are almost always obliged to give a film a wide opening to preserve existing relationships, even if a holdover would likely make more money than a new entry.

What does this mean for moviegoers? Surely, a worsening of the already awful multiplex experience. Theaters make their money mostly from concession sales and preshow advertisements — watch for popcorn prices to go up and for audiences to be assaulted with even more ads on the screen. And watch for ticket prices to go up: the cost to the studios of getting butts back in seats has been enormous — they’ll want to recoup that dough somehow.

And it may herald the end of the movie theater as we know it altogether. It could be that the studios don’t want the films to fail per se … they just want the films to fail at the multiplex. They want the multiplexes to fail. (Exhibitors are already pissed with Hollywood’s seeming lack of inclination to work with them, so it’s not like there’s a good relationship there to start with.) Why would the studios want that? Well, the studios don’t have to share anything with anyone when they sell DVDs of their films. Perhaps by the time we’ve settled on either Blu-ray or HD for the new home-video format, home video will be the only way we’re watching movies at all.

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  • Signal 30

    I suspect that the studios don’t really want the multiplex’s to fail, but to be on the verge of failing… so that they can step in and buy them out.

    A return to the glorious days of the studios also owning the theaters (hey, if AT&T can use the Wayback Machine, why not United Artists?).

  • MaryAnn

    But the studio monopolies were broken up by legistlation. I don’t know if the studios could, legally, own studios again.

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