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The One Thing That Will Put People in Theater Seats

7 Jul, 2005 By: Jessica Wolf

I've done some informal polling of my friends and family members, and have been hearing the same thing over and over about the factors contributing to the oft-reported box office slump our industry is experiencing.

Here's what I'm hearing in a nutshell: It's expensive to go to the movies, and more often than not, once you get there, the film is a disappointment.

AMC's money-back guarantee for Cinderella Man doesn't fully solve the problem — at least according to my sister, who feels she got burned recently by epics like Kingdom of Heaven and Troy in theaters. They weren't worth the time she spent away from her little daughter, she says.

She's been wanting to see Cinderella Man, but even the idea that she can get her money back if she doesn't like it isn't enough to get her there. She'll still be out the money, she says.

“I can wait a few months and buy the DVD, and it will still cost less than [my husband and I] going to see it in the theater together,” she said.

I took the chance. I went to see Cinderella Man, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I think my sister would, too, but she's dug her heels in now.

Cinderella Man lives up to expectations, but that film — if it turns out some money — will truly be a Cinderella story in itself right now. So many movies just aren't that good.

Add that to all the other considerations that are involved in today's entertainment mentality, not the least of which is the quick and affordable availability of films on DVD, then factor in all the entertainment options in the home — DVD libraries, cable programming, video games of all kinds — and throw in increased gas prices, and there you have it.

If it costs a lot to get there in the car, even more to get tickets and snacks, the movies disappoint and you're not sitting around bored if you don't choose to go to the theater, then, of course, ticket sales are going to slump.

Seems to me, the primary driver is a lack of faith in the quality of movies in general. I agree with Ralph Tribbey, editor of The DVD Release Report, who, speaking at our DVD Magic 8 Conference last week, said there are too many sequels and not enough truly story-driven films, like Sideways or Million Dollar Baby.

In the past few years, there have been way too many hastily plotted sequels and remakes, too much popcorny, big-budget fare and not enough craft.

It works for me, though. I'm certainly not wanting for entertainment. I've been having a helluva time sifting through a ton of old 1970s films on DVD I never knew existed. What a strange and wonderful era in filmmaking that was!

The gas issue cannot be discounted as well. It's easy to see how consumers might be willing to spend $15 to $20 on a DVD if they're already shopping at a Target or Wal-Mart, or they might even stop by an electronics store if it's on the way home from the grocery. If you're already out and about, you may not think about the gas factor so much. But going to the movies is not usually an impulse; it takes planning and timing, and the idea of travel time and gas consumption certainly can become part of that planning procedure.

Mike Dunn, president of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, also pointed this out at the Magic 8 Conference.

“[Gasoline prices] take a load out of your entertainment discretionary income,” he said.

To a lesser extent, another contributing factor is the idea that the whole scheme of summer entertainment overall has shifted somewhat. And it's gonna get worse before it gets better.

Remember all those years when all TV had to offer over the summer were long, dry patches of reruns and little or no original programming? Movies were a great option.

But now there are a bunch of hot reality shows garnering network ratings, not to mention water-cooler conversations and Internet chatter — shows like “Dancing With the Stars,” “Beauty and the Geek,” “Hell's Kitchen” and a hilarious gem I discovered by accident Tuesday night, “Fire Me, Please.” HBO recently launched the second season of its trendy and popular “Entourage,” and the Sci Fi Channel unleashes season two of the new “Battlestar Galactica” in two weeks.

For people who don't enjoy any of these shows, what better time than summer to catch up on all those complete-season TV DVD sets stacked around the house?

Pile all this on, and you see how the box office can get buried.

I'd venture to guess ticket sales will be down next year, too, with PSP growth and PlayStation 3 hitting the market.

How to fix it? Start with the movies.

Hey, Hollywood studios … make some good ones, make some great ones, make something new and make us believe we are somehow dying to see it and we will go see it. We will. It is in our nature.

Keep letting us down and we'll just wait for the DVD. That's in our nature now, too.

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