Movies may not be better than ever, but Hollywood is more frightened than ever. The town is about to be shorn of the tinsel.
The box-office slump that began early last summer is not subsiding, as everyone here bravely told themselves it would, but accelerating. The decline in both attendance and revenue is the sharpest in 20 years. With the slump entering its third consecutive year, industry executives are beginning to ask whether the bad news from the culture front is permanent.
Theater owners are even more depressed, because the studios are making more money now on sales of DVD "prints" and licensing various gimmicks, gimcracks and doodads than they make by selling tickets.
By some estimates, the number of moviegoers will be down 6 percent for the year, despite everything Harry Potter, King Kong and C.S. Lewis ("The Chronicles of Narnia") can do for the box office. But it's not just the bad stuff on the screen. "One thing we sometimes overlook," says Richard Roeper, the Chicago Sun-Times critic and half of television's Ebert & Roeper reviewing team, "is the quality of the moviegoing experience. If someone's waiting through 20 minutes of commercials, and you've got people behind you kicking your seat and talking on cell phones, do you think a lot of people might say, 'You know what? I've got a great sound system, I've got a 50-inch plasma screen. I'm just going to wait three months until the DVD comes out.'"
Soon such fans won't have to wait three months. The studios are flirting with the notion of a simultaneous DVD-theater release. Fans of big-screen crapola will be able to put it on their TV screens at once.
But the idea is dawning on the little minds of Hollywood that maybe the great gullible moviegoing public is fed up with junk -- the endless car chases, the mechanical sex, the gore and guts, the mindless plots and maybe even the relentless sneering at red-state values. Hollywood has forgotten how to tell a story, or to recognize one. One screenwriter who must remain anonymous so he can continue to lunch in this town says that's why there are so many remakes.
"No one has any confidence in what they're doing. So if someone suggests remaking 'Titanic' for the fourth time, everyone says, 'Yeah, great, that one always makes money.' Or they'll pay a lot of money for a book and only use the title, because they figure if someone in New York thinks the story was good enough to put in a book it must be OK."
But not every story. When Mel Gibson collected a stunning $350 million gross with "The Passion of the Christ," a lot of people here thought other Bible epics would follow. "The Passion" lured people to theaters who had rarely been there before, and the Bible, after all, has an abundance of great stories and all of them are in the public domain.
"Everybody sent out to Barnes & Noble for a Bible," one studio veteran recalls, "looking for good stories. The Good Book is full of them, but nobody could figure out how to put a car chase in the story of Salome and John the Baptist, or how to work randy airline stewardesses or hot nurses into the story of Joseph and his dream coat, so the fad died before it could get started."
Sam Goldwyn's famous caution -- "If you want to send a message, go to Western Union" -- is no longer honored, and heavy-handed politics ruins a lot of stories. Hollywood is watching "Brokeback Mountain," about a couple of cowboys in hot pursuit of sodomy in Wyoming, to see whether it's the "breakthrough" to a vast new audience that can be exploited with a rash of movies pandering to the lavender lobby. The early reviews were ecstatic; superblogger Mickey Kaus suggests that anyone who doesn't swoon risks being shunned as a bigot. But the studios are hedging their bets: The early full-page newspaper adverts tout it merely as "a heartbreaking love story" that might be a tryst by Dick and Jane, carefully avoiding even the hint that it's a movie with a purple message. This sends the message to gays that it's only safe to come out of the closet when the theater lights go down, but in Hollywood whatever works, works, even if nothing any longer does.
Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.