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Filmism.net Dispatch October 2, 2023

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Here's a question I haven't seen asked, not just about the movie industry but the entire art form of cinema.

What happens when there's no box office?

Since the birth of the industry a century ago, there's been one ultimate measure that has any real impact on whether a movie can be considered a success or not, and that's how many people show up to buy tickets.

Of course technology has always had an impact on that measure. In the 80s and 90s studios and rightsholders could add the number of times a VHS tape was rented from a video store. And it's true, that era gave us a 'shadow' industry in the straight-to-video market which did perfectly fine bypassing cinema releases altogether.

Names like Cynthia Rothrock, Mark Dacascos, Jean Claude Van Damme, Chuck Norris, Cannon Films and the precursors to the Weinstein empire owned the field and did very, very well while the Big Six studios dealt with more 'serious' fare that made it to cinema screen globally, but if that was your stomping ground you were nevertheless seen as something of a shlock peddler.

Cinema box office, by contrast, has always been a thing. And not just for the either/or proposition about whether a film is a success or not, either.

A movie we all knew was a smash minted a hot new filmmaker or star, galvanising their stock or irreparably damaging it if their movie was a bust. In the latter case just ask Renny Harlin (Cutthroat Island), Stephen Norrington (The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Michael Cimino (Heaven's Gate), Martin Brest (Gigli), Richard Kelly (Southland Tales) and many others.

Box office dictated what was greenlit for the next couple of years. It cemented the status of production companies and film artisans that would be making our movies in the near future.

It supported an entire industry of media content about which executives or directors would be popping champagne or avoiding everyone else's eyes as they walked through the office on Monday morning.

So what will the industry look like if that all goes away?

A couple of years back, the institution of cinema disappearing altogether seemed like a distinct possibility. Some poor schmuck ate bat soup in a Wuhan fish market, millions died and the global economy (including movies and entertainment) was disembowelled.

And while we felt sure/hoped science would do its work and develop a vaccine, changing culture was always going to be harder.

We're through the pandemic now, but the economy hasn't recovered fully, and while you don't meet many people who are still scared to go back to cinemas nowadays, a lot of people are just out of the habit and unlikely to go back anytime soon.

I mean, there's been considerable excitement, relief and commentary this year because of the anticipation and success of Barbie and Oppenheimer, but I'm as devoted a moviegoer as there's ever been and I've only been to a cinema a handful of times so far in 2023.

Because even though we're now living with COVID instead of locking ourselves inside in terror, the movie industry is continuing to move on and evolve. We already had streaming services back when we were heading into lockdowns, but a few years later as we head back out they're absolutely ubiquitous.

The reason I've hardly been to a movie theatre this year is because with Netflix, Amazon, Disney, Kanopy, SBS Online, Stan and Binge in my house I could never go to a cinema again and still not see every film I have on my list.

Added to that, the longtime trend where the Big Six (now Five, which further proves my point) studios are still getting increasingly out of the midbudget adult drama business and peddling increasingly homogenised franchises and superheroes for kids is also continuing. So there's less reason than ever to go to a big screen movie if you're not the audience for that.

But the unintended consequence of a world where movies means streaming rather than cinemas that nobody's talking about is that there won't be a box office anymore, just nebulous subscriber numbers that aren't connected to any one movie.

And instead of breathless headlines about how Captain Spandex Part VIII made $105m over the weekend and is tracking to reach a billion dollars within a month or so, there'll be crickets.

Because the streaming services, if you aren't aware, keep numbers about how many people watch a show or film very secret. They might hold very short theatrical runs of their movies for the prestige or the awards qualification, but they're token appearances intended to make those companies seem cinema-friendly.

Their business model isn't to have people queueing up at cinemas but signing up for subscriptions.

In fact, the number of people who watch the latest streaming hit isn't that important, not even to the streamers. The connection between viewer numbers and how many people subscribe is tenuous, indirect and probably impossible to measure completely. Financial success is no longer tied to the performance of an individual movie but audience metadata.

That doesn't just apply to us, either, but filmmakers themselves. The streamers are just as cagey with them about how many people have watched, to the extent several high profile names recently complained about it.

Now, they're getting a bit better. Back in 2021 Netflix released details about how many accounts were watching its top titles, and they have that top ten list, although it doesn't tell us who many people have watched.

Research firms like Nielsen also make educated guesses about how many people are watching based on social media chatter about a title.

There might even be an imperative for them to be as transparent as the Hollywood studios are (or claim to be) one day, but until then there'll be an essential element missing from the discourse about a movie.

How will you know you're the hottest new director in town or have the biggest movie of the weekend when the only place it's getting any buzz is in your streaming service's top ten list?

That buzz might initially seem superfluous, but it's actually critical in this industry. It's part of the narrative about a film. It matters not just to studios or producers but talent and even fans. A director that had a dedicated fanbase might have had a series of flops and then a single hit that cemented their position and gave them a career, one we wouldn't have enjoyed otherwise.

When Avatar: The Way of Water was coming out, part of its mystique was that it was going to have to be one of the top five highest grossing movies in history just to break even. That's not something only Disney bean counters were interested in, it's part of the story about the movie we as fans care about.

Once we live in this new world completely, when the century-old culture of movies in cinemas is gone and entertainment is all about apps, what's success in the movie business even going to look like?

On screens recently, three of the five movies I've seen in cinemas this year, as mentioned above. First was Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny and good lord, can they please stop flogging this dead horse (the actor and the franchise)?

I was looking forward to Mission: Impossible - Dead Reckoning Part One, having greatly enjoyed the last handful of MI films. What a disappointment. Was I just not in the mood, or was I right in my suspicion that the structure consisted entirely of a hushed meeting following by a giant set piece followed by another hushed meeting, etc, etc?

But the biggest disappointment was the worst film in a long time by a previously unassailable director. Chris Nolan appears to have hoodwinked everybody with Oppenheimer, with which I found so many problems you'll just have to read the review.

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