Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies? How the Richness of Technology Led to the Poverty of Imagination
SIX HUNDRED OR SO movies open in the United States every year, including films from every country, documentaries, first features spilling out of festivals, experiments, oddities, zero-budget movies made in someone’s apartment. Even in the digit-dazed summer season, small movies never stop opening—there is always something to see, something to write about. Just recently I have been excited by two independent films—the visionary Louisiana bayou mini-epic, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and a terse, morally alert fable of authority and obedience called Compliance. Yet despite such pleasures, movies—mainstream American movies—are in serious trouble. And this is hardly a problem that worries movie critics more than anyone else: many moviegoers feel the same puzzlement and dismay.
When I speak of moviegoers, I mean people who get out of the house and into a theater as often as they can; or people with kids, who back up rare trips to the movies with lots of recent DVDs and films ordered on demand. I do not mean the cinephiles, the solitary and obsessed, who have given up on movie houses and on movies as our national theater (as Pauline Kael called it) and plant themselves at home in front of flat screens and computers, where they look at old films or small new films from the four corners of the globe, blogging and exchanging disks with their friends. They are extraordinary, some of them, and their blogs and websites generate an exfoliating mass of knowledge and opinion, a thickening density of inquiries and claims, outraged and dulcet tweets. Yet it is unlikely that they can do much to build a theatrical audience for the movies they love. And directors still need a sizable audience if they are to make their next picture about something more than a few people talking on the street.
I have in mind the great national audience for movies, or what’s left of it. In the 1930s, roughly eighty million people went to the movies every week, with weekly attendance peaking at ninety million in 1930 and again in the mid-1940s. Now about thirty million people go, in a population two and a half times the size of the population of the 1930s. By degrees, as everyone knows, television, the Internet, and computer games dethroned the movies as regular entertainment. By the 1980s, the economics of the business became largely event-driven, with a never-ending production of spectacle and animation that draws young audiences away from their home screens on opening weekend. For years, the tastes of young audiences have wielded an influence on what gets made way out of proportion to their numbers in the population. We now have a movie culture so bizarrely pulled out of shape that it makes one wonder what kind of future movies will have.