The American comic Shelly Berman used to say he preferred watching TV at home to going to the movies because at home he didnt 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 its 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. Were 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 dont know what the figures look like here, or where to look for them, but I think its 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 its 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 dont 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 wasnt 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.