Month: February 2012

The Declining Box-Office

In a recent issue of Time (January 16, 2012), in The Culture, writer Richard Corliss highlighted a few facts about declining box-office revenues and offered a few potential contributing factors.  According to the snippet, revenue was down nearly 5% in 2011 with attendance at the 1992 level.  The highest gross of a film in its domestic run (Harry Potter) was less than the most popular video game day-one sales (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).

Corliss takes to five points on why this may be happening:

  • Seasonality of movie-going – what must be an apparent change from before, films were most successful between April and Labor Day.
  • Demographic changes – Apparently young men found substitute entertainment, while women and customers of 40 were doing more than their share.
  • Traditional stars aren’t pulling crowds – Corliss looked at the films with actors that usually draw large crowds – and found few of them in the top 20 for the year.
  • Sequels are sagging” – Oddly enough Corliss acknowledges that the year’s top seven films were sequels, but then explains he add this point because none of this years originals are likely to lead to a sequel.
  • Cartoons are crashing” – According to Corliss, five of the top ten films in 2010 were animated, but only one of the top films in 2011 was.

Now, when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to mention this article and throw out my own thoughts on why people aren’t going to the movies.  But having summarized it, I’m not sure I really agree with what it has to say.

  • The seasonality point could be true and is easily verified in data. Fair enough, but I’d sure like to understand how dramatic of a change this really is.
  • Demographic changes – again, potentially an interesting change, but not clear from what is provided that it is a leading cause in the decline.
  • Stars don’t pull crowds – Okay, this one I have a hard time going along with.  Certainly yesterday’s clear stars won’t necessarily be favorites tomorrow.  The stars that Corliss looked at have been around awhile – why not look at current and younger actors that have popularity? Most everyone I know asks about films in this order: Name (what movie?) Cast (who’s in it?) and Log line (what’s it about?).  WHO is in a film is always going to matter. And it usually needs to be a recognizable name – stars.  I’m tempted to follow-up this post with a double-click on some of this data.
  • “Sequels are sagging” – If we just ignore the fact that the author highlighted – that the top 7 films were sequels – and turn our attention to the potential for sequels, my issue isn’t so much that I disagree (e.g. I’m not going to name a 2011 film that I’m sure will have a sequel), but it is that movies should not fundamentally be written and produced for that potential.  So, while this may be true, I don’t think it’s for the reason the author states.  One factor I will talk about below, is that consumers of entertainment are wiser and do not want to be thought of us long-term revenue streams.  That said, if a story is good and it makes sense, there is obviously evidence that sequels can be popular.
  • Animated features – This is the point that I find the hardest to believe in.  Animated features take a very long time to create, and it seems like a very competitive space, in that many times you see look-alike films coming out about the same time, and certainly competing for family dollars at peak periods mean trying to have something out there before the other studio.  With so many coming out in 2010, it would make sense the pipeline was a bit dry for 2011.  And, once again, I point to the obvious, that there will always be kids that want to go to the movies, and a certain age group that prefer animation.

From a regular Jane point of view – I point to the movie-going experience itself as a problem for box-office struggles.  I mean, sure, I get that more and more people have 60″ high-definition televisions and sources in their homes, but the movie theater still provides an important place in activity and entertainment for a large number of people.  The top complaints I hear from would-be-movie-goers aren’t that they’d rather stay home, it’s that the experience isn’t meeting their needs.

  • The cost – The cost for a couple or a family to go to a primetime movie is ridiculous. Anywhere from $10-$20 per person, just for a ticket, means just to show up and view the movie is going to cost you $20-$80.  That price point puts the activity into some serious competition from other activities.  Once you add in the unreasonably priced food and beverages, which average $10-15 per person, you are up to $50 for a date and as much as a whopping $120 for a family. For what is on average a 90 minute activity! Ouch!  Especially when you consider it might be likely that people who want to go to movie theaters are those that cannot afford fancy in-home-theaters or don’t have their own homes yet.
  • Food and drink options – While it has taken our country a while to start coming around to truly healthful eating, and it still has a long ways to go, it is already true, in my experience, that the traditional snacks and beverages are losing popularity.  The amount and nature of the calories found behind that lobby counter are all wrong!  Theaters need to change more quickly.
  • Location – Because movies have moved away from the many neighborhood theaters and to massive movie-plexes, many of my friends have to look at driving 20-40 minutes to the theater.  And many of my friends prefer art and international films, which usually only appear in one or two local theaters in downtown Seattle.  I know many people in my little part of town would love a one or two screen theater that we could just walk to.
  • Selection – In general, think it’s time that Hollywood stray a bit from its magic formulas.  Today’s consumers are wiser and demand more uniqueness from the subjects of their attention.  Continuing to re-run storylines and depend on obvious gimmicks simply won’t work as well, any more.  That said, I think that every time a theater dedicates 2-4 of it’s theaters to the hit-of-the-week, they are reducing selection for the larger movie-going population.

I do think movies are doing a couple of things right in adapting to today’s consumers:

  • Reinventing – In recent years I have seen several 21+ and/or ‘gold service’ theaters crop up and they seem to be popular.  IMAX, 3D and 4D options have increased.
  • Flexibility – I remember when you couldn’t plan on going to a movie until mid-afternoon, at the earliest.  Now, there are usually plenty of times to choose from, including early morning for family features.

In the end, I feel that Corliss’ article isn’t well-grounded and generates more questions than it answers.  But, reading that article, and writing this post, has made me a lot more curious about the patterns and changes of theaters and consumers over the years, so look for more on this topic in the future. It is an important one for screenwriters to consider.

– April

What’s on my bookshelf

Screenwriters Bookshelf
My Screenwriting Bookshelf

I love books.  One of my absolute favorite things to do is to wander through our local independent store – Third Place Books – or even a chain like Barnes and Noble.  A latte in hand, meandering, soaking in all of the cover art and titles of hundreds of books.  The knowledge to be gained, the stories of wild imaginations and laughs waiting to be made. I also love the newstand section – layers and layers of glossy colorful magazines with that magazine smell, the gifts section with amazing journals and stationery. I also love libraries – especially University libraries.  I relished every research paper assignment in all levels of education.

Anyone close to me knows that I have a bit of an obsessive streak that runs through me.  Last fall when I decided to take on coaching basketball,  my first task was to order a few books online.  Then I ordered all sorts of coaching and practice aids.  I spent hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours reading and preparing – to coach 8- and 9-year-olds. I had coached before, but that was over ten years ago and the girls were more experienced and easy to manage, being in the sixth grade.  This is what I do; I throw myself completely into things and obsess over every detail.

So, naturally, within a week or two of deciding that I wanted to put the effort and energy into completing and editing the script I had been writing, I ordered a half-dozen books.  Then, as I read the forewords to those books, and received recommendations from people ‘in the biz,’ I added several more. 

In case you can’t quite make it out in the photo, the titles are:
Top to bottom:
Stuart Voytilla and Scott Petri – Writing the Comedy Film: Make ’em Laugh
Jeremy Robinson and Tom Mungovan – The Screenplay Workbook: The writing before the writing
David Trottier – The Screenwriter’s Bible
Finally, not pictured, as it’s in my purse for on-the-go-reading – Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!

Now, you might be asking “but did you really read all of those, cover to cover?”

I was surprised, in looking at the stack, that there are really only two books in the stack that I haven’t read – Anatomy of Story and The Writer’s Journey.  I’ve really only skimmed the workbook and ‘bible’, but the rest I have read completely.

The first (and often only) book I mention, when asked, is Story.  It is thorough, has just enough detail but good flow – you can cruise through it and also learn a lot.  Remember that I have never had a real creative writing course, so some of it described The Basics, but it covered those in a fun and engaging way.  I find myself going back to it, at times, when trying to get through a mental block.

My favorite book to pick up and thumb through, even though I’ve read it a couple of times, is the Cinematic Story Telling.  The large format and plethora of pictures open your eyes to so much about what visually makes us love films and recognize a great one when we see it.  So many “ah-ha!” moments when you connect what you learn with movies that you just love to watch.

There are numerous books on writing romance, but only one or two, that I have found, that add in the comedy piece.  The one mentioned here does a pretty good job explaining how two genres come together to work well.

I wouldn’t have normally picked up the too-good-to-be-true 21-days book, but it was one of those unlikely recommendations in the foreward of another book, so I picked it up and found that I appreciate it providing basic structure to a very creative effort.

Each of the “tips” type books also had various golden nuggets.  And golden nuggets are things you need to appreciate, reading multiple books, because there is a lot of repetition and overlap in the books, but sometimes an author will express something in a new way, or use a film example more effectively, and the light bulb goes on.

I’m currently really enjoying the direct and humorous Save the Cat! and will follow up once through it, as well as the other two books.

– April

And so it began…

My interest in screenwriting, is, logically, rooted in the love of the feature film.  I have known the power of a good film since I was young: the emotions it can take you through, the escapism it provides, the characters that become a part of your life.  Knowing I would write this post, I have been trying to think about the first movie memory that I have.  I originally believed it was a movie called Rollercoaster in 1977.  I don’t remember much about the movie, except the thrill of the first person view of riding coasters and the speakers vibrating my seat and the floor of the theater.  I vaguely remember the facade of that theater, which was still standing when I moved away from Colorado Springs in 1989.  Searching the Internet I don’t immediately find an image or name that sounds right, but I will ask around to see if I can find and add that info here.  I also remember, at that same theater, waiting in line with my family for a much more recognizable title – Star Wars.  Rollercoaster was out just a few weeks later, so it must have been Star Wars that was my first memorable theater visit.  And reminiscing brought up many other memories of movies while I was growing up.

The next year, my first memory of a drive-in theater was made.  I recall my sister and I trying to go to sleep in the back seat of a car, while my parents watched FM.  Another vivid memory is that of being introduced to my Dad’s cousin’s awesome theater room – they had an amazing sound system, projector TV and a Laser Disc player.  We watched Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978).

The Shining (1980) can’t be skipped; it was the first scary movie I ever watched and I was brilliant enough to watch it at home, alone, at night, when I was 12.  I don’t think I slept for a week.  That would pretty much be the story for the rest of my life – I can’t do horror flicks. I’m so impressionable, that the little black subway ghosts from Ghost (1990) gave me nightmares for weeks!!  The only movie I’ve brought myself to watch – for reasons that escape me – was the Blair Witch Project (1999).  I can’t even stand previews of scary movies or TV drama.  I have to close my eyes and plug my ears.

Flash forward to 1983, past Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Slap Shot (1977), Caddy Shack (1980), another chapter in the Star Wars story (1980), and ET (1982).  War Games – this movie really captured my attention.  I felt like I was David (I wasn’t even close).  I had my own computer (Vic20) and peripherals (tape disk drive, four-color plotter/printer) that I had saved for and purchased on my own. I had the little programming magazines and would type in programs.  I felt different and smarter than others and knew I loved working with computers.  I still recall going to some career fair and coming home clutching a Broderbund brochure.  Very few movies hold a permanent place in my heart, and this is a big one!

After my Dad finally created his own home theater in our family room, with a big screen TV and a Laser Disc player, anyone that came to our house would be required to sit through a demo of the really loud parts of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – I have the scene with the mailboxes shaking permanently burned into my brain) – and the hockey scene from Strange Brew (1983).  I remember my parents also really loving the Woody Allen film, Sleeper (1973), but I never really understood it, and in fact, I have just never been a big Woody Allen fan.

The Right Stuff (1983), Space Camp and Top Gun (both of 1986) would be the biggest memories after that. My love of the space program was in place from the start of the shuttle program, and was far from dampened by the shuttle tragedy; and, well, how could a 15-year-old girl not fall in love with Maverick and Ice Man. Volleyball, anyone?

Into the 90s, I favored drama and romance flicks.  I would readily purchase VHS tapes, and later DVDs, of movies I wanted to watch over and over again.  I’ll highlight those in an upcoming post. I remember being really moved by Forrest Gump (1994) and other dramas around the time. I also loved the asynchronous Pulp Fiction (1994). By now, I have become fairly partial to romantic comedies.  I love laughing, I love happily-ever-afters, and if I’m going to escape the drama of my own life, I want to laugh and dream of how-it-could-be.

Ocean's Eleven Script
Ocean’s Eleven Script

And while romantic comedies are my favorite genre, it was my fascination with the remake of Ocean’s Eleven (2001) that drew me to screenplays.  A little comic book shop in the Pike Place Market stocks printed copies of screen plays, and one day in 2003, after thumbing through the selections, there was no question that I would purchase the script for Ocean’s Eleven.  I wanted to see how the story weaved together in print.

That is without a doubt when my love affair with scripts began! I loved the format, the focus on dialogue, the scene intros – everything.  Over the next few years that followed, I purchased a half dozen more from that same shop. I found others in book format and many in digital format. In a future post I’ll detail those that I’ve really read and analyzed, as well as what motivated to write one on my own.

– April