we are all teenagers now


The American comic Shelly Berman used to say he preferred watching TV at home to going to the movies because at home he didn’t have to wear any pants.

This may or may not answer the puzzle now vexing Hollywood: why attendance is skidding downwards.

This year, box-office is off 5 %, and attendance is down 9 %. One weekend in early May, the top twelve films made a mere $77 million, the worst gate in five years. Box office is off 10% since 2002.

Sharon Waxman of The New York Times is all over this trend, and recently she put an “uncomfortable” question: “Are people turning away from lackluster movies, or turning their backs on the whole business of going to theaters?”

It will not do to say Star Wars ($50 million it’s first day) will save the day. An industry expert says otherwise.

“One movie cannot change the whole course of events over one weekend. […] We could not reverse three months of downward with one film. We’re way down.” (Paul Dergarabedian, president, Exhibitor Relations in Waxman, 2005a)

Lots of thing have driven attendance down: better home theatres, faster access to DVDs, failing block busters, “sleepers” that never awaken. Waxman (as below) reviews them well.

But I think Shelly Berman might have been right. Watching movies or TV at home has certain advantages. The chief of these is that at home we can multitask.

I don’t know what the figures look like here, or where to look for them, but I think it’s probably true that everyone multitasks more than they used to, and some of us multitask virtually all our waking hours.

In short, we are all teenagers now. This was one of marketing research revelations of the 1990s: that teens could watch TV, take a phone call, do their home work, monitor a conversation in the other room, and ignore their parents all at the same time. But some 10 years later, it looks like kids were merely the early adopters.

I know it’s true from my own experience. I am pleased to see how many emails I can dispatch in the time it takes Pam and I to “watch” CSI: Miami. I am sure shards of TV dialogue find their way into my emails and perhaps shouts of warning (“Look out behind you, Hortio, look out!”) but these are merely the moments of incoherence my clients have come to expect of me.

Going to the movies does take us captive. We can only do one thing. What a charmingly 20th century idea! Does anyone do one thing anymore? Surely not. We don’t multitask because we can, we multitask because we must.

There is even multitasking within the multitasking. When watching TV we can surf the channel stream and we do often manage to watch more than one program at once. This is remotely possible in a Cineplex and I was once decided to go at random from one film to another. Just to see. It wasn’t pretty. I walked out of a Rozema treatment of Jane Austin (always a good idea) straight into Fight Club. (I am still in counseling.)

This raises another question. How is it we can follow more than one channel at once? It is because our media I.Q. have risen so dramatically that several programs at once is pretty easy. Once we became masters of genre, a good deal of the standard TV show became gratuitous. Our grandparents might have labored heroically to follow the complexities of a Lucy Show. We need a couple of interventions over 30 minutes not just to “get” the plot but to predict the outcome. (And it may be this new sophistication that has encouraged TV shows to build new complexity in. See the new book noted in the post on Culture wars, about 5 days ago.)

Now the movies are really in trouble. They may build in all the complexity they want, but really, after about 4 minutes we know were this baby is going and we are reaching for our cell phones or laptops. SHHHH! Not in a movie theatre, these are little shrines to the very old idea of doing one thing at once. In a movie theatre we are, in the Tom Wolfe/NASA phrase, spam in a can. Actually, we are pre-spam. We are cows in a feed stall.

So Shelly Berman was right, in a way. The advantage of TV is that it allows for multitasking, and our new media multiplicity, our ability to follow several threads at once.

My prediction: the television is slowly and belatedly making good on its early rep: that it would be the death of the movie house.


Waxman, Sharon. 2005a. ‘Star Wars’ Breaks Box-Office Records. New York Times. May 23, 2005.

Waxman, Sharon. 2005b. Hollywood Worries As Decline Continues. New York Times. May 10, 2005.

14 thoughts on “we are all teenagers now

  1. cmb

    I’ll be sorry to see that happen. I prefer the theatre to watching at home. Why? Because in the theatre I can’t multitask (which I don’t do well to begin with), I have to pay attention rather than read or surf while watching (and therefore missing that key scene).

  2. Brian Hawkins

    Grant, I think everything you’ve mentioned is true–last night I ironed two weeks worth of shirts while watching Blade Runner. I definitely couldn’t have pulled that off at the theater.

    But I also think that movies are pricing themselves out of the market even as their audiences are becoming more discriminating…ticket and concession prices are climbing steadily. My fiancee and I now spend as much on two evening tickets, a bag of popcorn, a bag of M&M’s, and a couple of sodas as we would for sushi for two (beer not included).

    We still do it, because we enjoy “going” to the movies–but when there’s a pile of Netflix we haven’t gotten to yet (and there ususally is), the sushi sounds pretty appealing. Especially since if the first movie we pop in is no good, there’s always another one…

  3. Grant

    CMB, as I write this, I am listening to a TV story about Wally Bachman, baseball manager, briefly, for the Diamondbacks, umm, what was the question again? Oh, right. Very good point. Thanks, Grant

    Brian, I agree the supersizing of concession pricing is a provocation. Eating huge quantities of bad food is the one additional activity we are allowed. Thanks. Grant

  4. edward cotton

    Perhaps teenagers will be the only ones that want to visit movie theaters. The theater’s appeal to teens may have less to do with the movie and everything to do with the neutrality of the space.

    Teens are the ones who go to the theater to multi-task.

  5. Matt

    I’m trying to remember the last movie I saw in a theater. I’m pretty sure it was back in the 20th.

    Who, I wonder, has time? Who, I wonder (with a certain amount of envy) can actually turn off their cell phone for two hours without either a federal law compelling them to (as in air travel) or a serious risk of losing their jobs?

    Even before Netflix, Blockbuster was always more convenient than the theater, and had a better selection to boot. And with HBO producing the best programming on television, we get movies thrown in free along with a nonnegotiable monthly subscription. If you feel like concentrating on a movie, then if you find yourself forced to interrupt your viewing (by phone calls, bodily needs, a desire to get more popcorn, etc) then you can just hit pause. Try that in a theater.

    Seriously…the only reason I can think of to go to a movie theater anymore is to make out with your girlfriend…and those of us who have our own apartments don’t need to buy tickets to make that happen. 🙂

  6. Charu

    Shah Rukh Khan, the demi-god of Indian movies said on a chat show on tv recently show – nowadays the movies are selling everything but the movies – true, Indian televison is ful of movie based shows, radio stations play film music, film magazines sell like hot cakes – but people have all but stopped going to theatres!

  7. Grant

    Edward and Matt, beauty!, now we are getting to the ways the movie theatre creates value and for whom! Thanks, Grant

    Charu, very nice, we have confused the product and the channel, and now we see the movies are channel agnostic, channel independent, perhaps channel promiscuous. They dont need movie theatres and in fact this traditional channel was frictionful and needed disaggregating! Or something. Thanks, Grant

  8. Jaisn

    Grant, I agree. I watch a Netflix while drinking a beer, flipping between the 7 tabs on my Mozilla browser, updating my ipod and ironing. I get several household chores done in the course of a single movie. If I miss an important scene, I hit rewind.

    If I see Star Wars this summer in the theatre it’ll only be because I feel like I should, not because I really want to.

  9. Grant

    Jaisn, nice point, the movie theatre’s last point of differentiation, besides those booming speakers, is being, briefly, sole source for crucial cultural documents, detailed knowledge of which is a cultural capital that determines social membership and standing in many circles. But this too shall change. I would be prepared to pay the studio twice the movie theatre ticket to have the Sith gang over to my house. Thanks, Grant

  10. Paul

    Hi – 1st time poster. I think some of the comments touched briefly on this point, however I believe one of the factors in declining attendance (other than the ones already mentioned) is the crap you have to put up with before watching the actual movie. Start times are listed at (eg) 7pm however the movie itself doesn’t start until closer to 7:30pm. I haven’t been to a flic since the last Lord of the Rings and this is why. I have no problem with viewing shorts or animated clips (in fact those are often more entertaining than the movie), and even previews I can handle. The VISA, Coke, Ford and GAP ads however are the last straw. If I wanted ads, I’d wait for the TBS Super Movie Weekend!!

    I’d also like to agree with Edward’s post – the movie ‘complex’ is a teen hangout now. The whole experience is geared to teens, from the crap food to the arcades and games.

  11. Anonymous

    I go to the theater for a “movie experience.” I want to be pulled into the movie and forget about everything else. That requires 1) a decent script, 2) a quiet audience, and 3) a seat near enough the front that the screen fills my visual field. 1) and 2) are getting harder to come by, although 3) is getting easier and easier as those used to watching at home replicate their TV experience by moving farther back at the theater.

    Honestly, watching something like Top Gun or Revenge of the Sith on TV is a pretty pallid experience compared to what it was like in the theater. The same cannot be said, however, about some of the more “domesticated” talking-head pictures, and I do find myself thinking I’ll wait for those to come around on my premium movie channels at home.

  12. steve

    Previous comment was me. I thought I had the “remember info” box checked.

  13. Anonymous

    As a teenager i can say that going to the movies is becomming less and less popular for several reasons. One is that its too expensive. Who wants to waste hard-earned or hard-begged money on a movie when it could be spent on a million other things, including gas? Another reason is that while people used to go to the movies to hang out, now they just go to their friends houses. You can still watch the movie and talk to your friends all at the same time without feeling rude. Plus drinks raided from the fridge is much better and not to mention less expensive.

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