A question, if I may, for the Americans and the Canadians: Did you do anything interesting for one of your summer long weekends? The residents of Amity-a bucolic, tourist-friendly hamlet on an island in New England, spent their July 4 weekend being terrorized by a great white shark, in Dolby 5.1 surround sound. Sadly, it has happened before, though not always with the Dolby-and even more sadly, it threatens to become a regular occurrence. The last time was five years ago, when, to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Jaws, a DVD was released. Now, to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary, another DVD has recently been released.
Don't worry: they get the shark. They do every time. Yet the special-edition DVDs keep coming. Okay, yes; this is all just a long-winded way of asking: Do we need another home-viewing edition of Jaws? Which is really just a long-winded way of saying: No, not really.
Hasn't the film made enough money already? Remember, Jaws was the proto-blockbuster, the one that sold 67 million tickets in a single summer (not even The Passion of the Christ has numbers like that); it essentially gave Hollywood the green light to make a certain kind of very expensive, very disposable movie from then on. Of course, there have always been expensive, disposable movies, but now they are disproportionate in number-designed to inhale huge amounts of money in the first weekend of their release, and then ... well, after the first weekend, who cares? That's the point, and to many, the problem.
But now, despite three decades of unswerving support from their forefather, Steven Spielberg (if not Jaws at home last weekend, perhaps The War of the Worlds at the theatre this weekend?), the social status of blockbusters is changing: Believe it or not, they're not paying off the way they used to. Even obscenely lucrative opening weekends can't change the fact that overall ticket sales have been slumping for years.
The Associated Press and America Online recently polled some Americans about their movie-going preferences, and 73 percent said they'd rather watch movies at home than in the theatre. Accordingly, studios are said to make up to three times as much money from home-viewing as from box-office ticket sales-though one must bear in mind that DreamWorks was recently discovered to consider DVDs "sold" the moment they shipped to retail stores, before consumers actually bought them. Fuzzy math aside, this example still operates on the correct assumption that home-viewing-whether by DVD, on-demand access or even cyberspace pillaging-trumps theatre-going.
It's easy to guess why. Nearly half the poll respondents suggested that the movies have worsened. That is debatable. Bad movies have been and will always be with us (especially now, thanks to the democratization and reduced expense of digital filmmaking), but the worst ones just seem overwhelmingly bad now. All the more egregious because we've simply lost patience with them-or with all that we must endure just to get to them: the theatres' real revenue comes from concessions, which therefore cost way too much. Previews are lame and loud and perforated by eons of commercials (at least at home, TiVo can edit the commercials out). To some extent, it's no wonder mainstream movie-theatre audiences, at least in the States, have become unruly. Audience members talk on their phones, which light up distractingly, and they heckle, never cleverly.
Movie-going also faces competition from other kinds of entertainment-the Internet, the iPod, the video game-as well as the closing time gap between the theatre and home-viewing release dates (a defence against piracy). Moreover, for viewers, it's no big deal to wait a little longer for the DVD-which, if on shelves even while the movie continues running on big screens, will sell. As far as the studios are concerned, the theatre release is increasingly a glorified full-length trailer for the DVD, which in turn can be souped up and repackaged every five years for each new anniversary, ad infinitum.
"People will always go to theatres, because they will always like a social experience," George Lucas told Wired News recently, "but I don't think it's going to be as big as it is now." He said something else of significance, too: "I'm not doing $100 million movies anymore. I'm more interested in smaller ones. Each time you do a $100 million movie, the chances are greater that you're not going to make your money back."
It's a mistake to think that what the movies need is for people to get back to the multiplex. We've bitched about the tyranny of the blockbuster era and worried it would never end. Now it might, but not quite as we'd imagined. In the future, the number of big screens in North America will likely diminish; it's not all bad if it means the end of dumb, disposable mega-movies playing on three screens at once. But it also means that if you care about movies and about seeing them in theatres, it will be your duty to support your local art house.
You won't miss the stadium seating and the $7 popcorn when what's on the screen actually satisfies your mind and spirit, as it should-or if you do miss that stuff, you can get it at home, in your living room, from your very expensive home-entertainment console.
Fittingly, the latest Jaws set could be the blockbuster's last gasp. It feels superfluous because it doesn't have many special features that you can't already find on previous editions or elsewhere-but that's fine: who has time to get through them anyway? Another reason some people would prefer to stay home with their movies may be that they simply have so much catching-up to do. To paraphrase Chief Brody's famous line, You're gonna need a bigger DVD rack.
We've come a long way since the time when the only way to see a movie was at a theatre for a limited time, before it disappeared forever. Maybe we'll get into watching films on the screens of our cell phones, but the theatres will remain our sacred spaces. Now's a good time to reclaim them.