Lean Years in Film

Crowds pack the cinemas, but business is withering from a series of false moves

This year has been a great year for mainstream cinema. 2009 has seen record-breaking box office results, and cinema attendance is through the roof. Cinemas are so popular, in fact, that the U.S. saw the highest number of attendance ever (or, at least since they started recording figures).  Great news for the movie business, right?

Wrong. Studios are cutting back funding, fewer films are being green-lit, and unemployment in the industry is up by 19%. If there seems to be a disconnect, there’s good reason for this – and it’s not because we’re in a recession.

The unfortunate reality is that studios no longer make very much money from cinema sales.  Foreseeing the “death of cinema,” they retooled themselves to use a theatrical release as promotion for the inevitable DVD sales. Most of their theater assets have either been sold off or trust-busted, with most of the ticket money now going into the pockets of theater owners.

At the same time, DVD sales have started collapsing, thanks to a thriving rental market (piracy, contrary to popular belief, is hardly a factor). Studios are scrambling to make up for lost revenue, at a time when they should be rolling in dough.

So what does this mean for cinema audiences?

What we’ll see coming from studios for the foreseeable future are fewer films, with a lot less risk factors attached to them. Expect more sequels – Transformers, Star Trek and Harry Potter will continue to be the big summer releases. These, in turn, will no longer be accompanied by the smaller films, as even big-name directors will have trouble getting funding for pet projects. And, whatever money there is for new films will most likely be invested in genre – comedy and horror – as people tend to visit these films in groups, which translates into more butts on seats.

Independents and up-and-comings will be left out in the cold. Films are expensive to make, and finding money to make a film has never been easy. But there was at time when, upon completing their low-budget masterpiece, a filmmaker could find buyers with relative ease. Now, even those days are fading away. Marketing and distributing a film is expensive, and, just like the studios, distributors want a “sure thing.”

The message from the industry is clear: “We’re not hiring.”

Small wonder, then, that independents and smaller filmmakers are turning to the Internet for funding and distribution, bypassing the old system altogether. For some, this has been a great success, but for many others, it has resulted in obscurity. The fact is that while the idea of DIY (“do it yourself”) filmmaking certainly tugs at the revolutionary heartstrings, nothing can best a cinematic and DVD release in terms of audience penetration and investment returns.

It’s uncertain whether we’ll see a significant change in this trend anytime soon, but one thing is for sure: with studios significantly cutting funding to their own projects, and investors pulling out of the Indie scene entirely, cinema culture seems to be in for a few meager years.

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