- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 6, 2006

Movie attendance was down 8 percent last year, and the number of tickets sold (1.4 billion) marked the lowest tally since 1996.

Judging from the ideas floated recently at ShoWest, the movie industry’s annual pep rally for theater owners in Las Vegas, Hollywood doesn’t have a clue about how to improve business.

What have studio executives proposed to lure consumers out of their home theaters and into the local multiplex?

Making electronic tickets more widely available to cell phone users, for one thing. Scrambling cell phone signals once users are inside a theater (to eliminate ambience-spoiling conversations) for another. Finally, Motion Picture Association of America chief Dan Glickman proposed a marketing gambit akin to the dairy industry’s “Drink Milk” campaign. Sure, that’s exactly what consumers want from movie mavens — more ads.

Such tweaks can’t hurt, but they’re hardly the battle-ready stuff that can resist, let alone reverse, such inexorable trends as the proliferation of home-entertainment options.

I have a theory why Hollywood seems so impotent: They’re not really worried about the box-office slump, and the only reason you keep reading about it is because people like, ahem, me keep writing about it.

It’s all the same to movie executives whether you watch a movie in a theater, with those sticky floors and irritating Chatty Kathys; in your climate-controlled rec room on your subwoofer-enhanced couch; or on the screen of a laptop computer on the tray table of an airplane.

It’s your eyeballs movie distributors want. They couldn’t care less where you park your posterior while you’re watching.

That’s not to say all is chummy among Hollywood suits and bookkeepers. The international video market last year, according to the Hollywood Reporter, signaled that growth in DVD sales may have peaked — a prospect far more ulcerous than a slip in annual theater attendance figures.

Oh, there’s another reason you keep reading about box-office woes. The party that stands to lose the most if movie attendance continues to plummet — theater owners — is truly, and rightly, anxious.

And it’s not the usual suspect — the dissatisfied customer fed up with the exorbitant costs and various nuisances of going to the theater — that primarily worries them. It’s the availability of DVDs so soon after the opening of a theatrical run.

“The biggest issue is the shrinking video window,” says box-office guru and Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian. “It diminishes the value of a movie.

“If that window is eliminated,” he adds, “I think it would be suicide for the industry.”

Despite the theater owners’ (quite reasonable) lament, Hollywood executives simply don’t see it that way; they care about theater attendance insofar as it delivers big opening weekends — still, despite an increasingly obvious overlay of hype, the best gauge of how well a movie is doing among the critical young male demographic.

Their overarching concern, however, is how to reach the moviegoer in an environment where personal taste is sovereign and convenience is king.

“What happened last year was a signal that audience patterns have changed,” says Anne Thompson, a veteran movie industry observer and Hollywood Reporter columnist. “It’s a real fear.”

In the not-too-distant past, Hollywood employed the “wide blast” method of marketing; it made and continues to spend a great deal of money making movies that appeal as broadly as possible to a market that slices three ways: children, daters and grownups. Until recently, the assumption among marketers was that the typical consumer often arrives at the theater with a “multiplex is my oyster” attitude. A choice of, say, 18 different movies was thought to be nigh overwhelming.

Those days are, to say the least, gone. The emblem of the future, Ms. Thompson says, is Internet DVD services like Netflix, which boasts 55,000 titles and offers sophisticated, personalized recommendations based on the user’s rental history.

Such an increasingly personalized movie marketplace is one reason why there may be something to the critique, made vociferously by conservatives last year, that Hollywood’s insular left-liberal politics, as displayed in movies like “Syriana,” “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “Munich,” polarized audiences and kept some Republicans out of movie theaters.

Conservative blogger Jason Apuzzo wrote, for example, that “Hollywood simply doesn’t need the red states any more. Hollywood’s more interested in how a film plays in Mexico or France these days than in Kansas. That’s the global economy for you — Hollywood’s now outsourcing its audience.”

Ms. Thompson, for her part, doesn’t buy the critique and says heartland moviegoers aren’t exercised by the specific political content of movies. In general, she argues, they continue to want, as they have for decades, more family-friendly fare from Hollywood.

If anything, the liberal-minded movies create a little bit of valuable buzz, Ms. Thompson believes. “They’re striking a nerve, and they’re easier to sell because they have a strong point of view,” she says.

All this is to say that, potentially, Hollywood has a self-reinforcing problem on its hands: The more it tailors the content of its movies to match the skews of an increasingly fragmented market, the more it may drive down overall box-office attendance and shrink the market.

If it hasn’t been said already, let it be said now: The revolution will be paradoxical.

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