sábado, 21 de marzo de 2009

The Pied Piper of the Cinémathèque

In a case of the arts as precursor to life, the demonstration against the French government’s sacking of Henri Langlois in February of 1968 led to a small riot that would be the first of many riots in that year famous for civil unrest. The protest and general strike of May 1968 (leading to the election of a new parliament to replace the DeGaulle government in June) were outgrowths of that first protest over the Cinémathèque Française in February.

Not the first cinémathèque in the world, nor the largest, still Langlois’ creation was singular in its depth and breadth – Langlois collected everything (especially early fragile silent films), and saved thousands of films from the Nazis by numerous wily schemes. He has never really been accorded the honor that such a feat deserves, though the protests in the gardens of the Palais de Chaillot were a good start.

The protests over Langlois weren’t limited to the streets – the French press, as well as many famous and influential people, supported Langlois in scathing letters and telegrams to the civil government (Orson Welles, Fritz Lang, Charlie Chaplin, among many others). But the fact that the first people to take to the streets were cineastes is, I feel, significant, for in those days, filmmakers were truly perceived as artists, and indeed many were artists and poets as well as writers and intellectuals.

The intersection of politics and cinema – what conservative types have been afraid of for years – had a brief bright moment in 1968, and then failed to ignite, as the entertainment value of film took over the collective consciousness.

No matter what anyone says about political or social uses of film today – Michael Moore and Al Gore notwithstanding – that early hope for political motion has not been fulfilled as many hoped it would be. The intellectual power of film has faded into the background, minimized by an attitude that film ‘artists’ – along with ‘intellectuals’ – are ‘quaint.

But an interesting thing happened… in an odd way, films continued to morph into TV, which took on a role remarkable in its simplicity.

In the seminal work The Art of the Moving Picture, Vachel Lindsay drew a clear comparison between movie houses and saloons, noting that the tone and tenor of public thought is drawn by the gathering-places of people. In Lindsay’s view, the moral tone of a saloon was suspect, while films that showed ‘social ideals’ could have a salutary effect on the body politic:

The shame of the American drinking place is the bar-tender who dominates its thinking. His cynical and hardened soul wipes out a portion of the influence of the public school, the library, the self-respecting newspaper. A stream rises no higher than its source, and through his dead-fish eye and dead-fish brain the group of tired men look upon all the statesmen and wise ones of the land. Though he says worse than nothing, his furry tongue, by endless reiteration, is the American slum oracle. At the present the bar-tender handles the neighborhood group, the ultimate unit in city politics….
So, good citizen, welcome the coming of the moving picture man as a local social force. Whatever his private character, the mere formula of his activities makes him a better type. He may not at first sway his group in a directly political way, but he will make himself the centre of more social ideals than the bar-tender ever entertained. And he is beginning to have as intimate a relation to his public as the bar-tender. In many cases he stands under his arch in the sheltered lobby and is on conversing terms with his habitual customers, the length of the afternoon and evening.

While very few influential producers or directors stand ‘in the sheltered lobby’ greeting audience members, they still hold a certain influence over the thoughts and motivations of those who follow their films. And Lindsay goes farther in his comparison, by alluding to the drain of one on the other: “Often when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy…”

Today’s bars tend to be places dominated by TV sets – often a dozen or more, even in the chain restaurants that line our suburbs. And while sports seems to be the main topic of interest related to these TV screens, still the screens will focus on certain issues that capture the attention of the voracious media. The democratization of TV has come in the form not of programming but of topicality: what the people are talking about is what stays on the screen… until the fickle public chooses another topic to chase. Still, a case of euthanasia in Florida or an uxorcide in our own backyard will capture the national imagination and spawn a host of imitative shows, from magazine-style exposés to movies-of-the-week.

Recommended works on Langlois & the Cinémathèque:

Henri Langlois: Phantom of the Cinémathèque by Serge Toubiana, Georges Goldfayn, Françoise Foucault, and Pascal Rogard (DVD - Aug 15, 2006)

A Passion for Films: Henri Langlois & the Cinémathèque Française by Richard Roud and François Truffaut (Paperback - Jun 17, 1999)

The Dreamers (NC-17 Edition) by Bernardo Bertolucci (DVD - Jul 13, 2004)

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2008 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.


Welcome to CineScene.

I had intended this blog to be published in the magazine that I previously worked for, but it seems that (to put this in the kindest words I can find) I have been made a victim of the economic downturn. That’s transition # 1.

So I am shifting my writing to this blog, in hopes of attracting enough of an audience to make it worthwhile to continue. (Transition # 2.)

As I go along, I will include previous blogs, as they may be of interest to film professionals and movie fans.

And now for Transition # 3, the actual subject of this blog – changes in the film industry, exhibition side. Let’s start with a bit of history.

From 1981 to 2005, studio income from Theatrical Exhibition shrank from 58% to 21% of Hollywood’s total income landscape, while Video Sell-through grew from 7 % to 49%.

That’s a huge change, and it continues to haunt the landscape today – the stalled Screen Actors Guild negotiations are hinged to these figures in both directions: the actors want a bigger share of the pie, and the studios want to keep the bottom line down (read: pay as little as possible).

Meanwhile, from 1981 to 2005, Video Rentals (as a percentage of the whole) stayed the same, while Broadcast Network income dropped from 10% to 1%, and Basic Cable grew from nothing to 3% of the studios’ income.

Studio revenues account for 80% of almost $12BB in consumer spending on sell-through sales, while the studios gained only 47% of the $8.5BB box office, 26% of $8.25BB in rentals, and 21% of $8.4BB from Premium TV, excluding Video on Demand (VOD) and Pay Per View (PPV) – the remaining percentages went to distribution partners.

And in the nascent VOD and PPV areas, the studios took in 60% of $125MM in VOD receipts, and 48% of $200MM in PPV income.

Though they get good percentages on VOD and PPV (studio share, 60% and 48%, respectively), the income is not large enough to warrant major interest (a third of a billion dollars, or less than 1% of total income from all sources).

Clearly, the future of Hollywood is in DVD sell-through (studio share, 80%) – or whatever the next generation of consumer-owned titles will be.

It doesn’t take a math whiz to see that 47% of 21% (Theatrical Exhibition) is a whole lot less than 80% of 49% (Sell-through).

Ok, that’s the money, but let’s look at consumer motivation.

Previously, no one thought that people would want to own films the way they own books – a library at home of favorite titles.

But DVD ownership is a logical extension of the desire to own knowledge or at least to hold onto information, and someone other than a few Kassandras should have seen this trend in advance – people buy and keep books, even though they may read them only once or twice in the time of their ownership.

In 1998, the first year that DVDs were offered on the market, DVDs represented about 8% of total ‘home video’ sales (total sales of $6.5BB).

But by 2005, DVDs had virtually wiped out VHS sales, having reduced them to just $500MM of the total $16.5BB – in 2006 there were virtually no VHS retail sales, and the market was static at $16.5BB. Translation: DVDs added ten billion dollars to the total income of retail sales, at the same time that they caused a decline of $5.48BB in VHS sales – VHS declined to just 3% of the retail ‘video’ market.

Early projections that HD-DVD would outstrip standard DVD seem to be coming true, as Blu-Ray’s market share has grown.

In fact, ‘a la carte’ PPV, VOD, and Internet video promise to be the fastest-growing segment of the studios income stream in the coming years. The 2005 aggregate gross of those three segments was $ 37.8BB retail sales, with studio revenue estimated at $17.26 per transaction.

The numbers will look different now, but the preceding figures came from Adams Media Research, a topline marketing research firm.

So what does it all mean? It means that portable movies are the way of the future, whether on disks or thumb-drives, or stored in iPods or your cell phone. And when we say ‘portable movies,’ we actually mean any kind of narrative moving-picture experience – feature and short films, TV shows, cartoons. But that alone is only half the story.

Another segment of this tale of the future is in how the studios will handle exhibition – and that has a couple of noteworthy components. The first is acquisition.

Previously, each major studio need a new film for the pipeline every two weeks. Why? To hold places in the exhibitors’ (theater owners’) calendars, so that a film from a rival studio would not take that screen.

Studios pretty much figured on 24 films per year, and they initially made almost all of them in-house. The studios made a range of films, with different budgets and bound for different markets or audiences – many were small films that could be sacrificed to make room in the exhibitors’ calendar.

But as budgets soared and the value of money declined, the studios started negative buys. To fill in their slates, the studio acquisition reps bought films at festivals or at film markets – especially foreign films or those that would fit into ‘indie’ slots. In 2008, there was a feeding frenzy at Sundance, with bidding wars going on for acquisition of new indies.

Why? Because the studios had cut their production slates so drastically – they were making (a very rough) half of the number they had made a few years previous.

And at the most recent Sundance festival, reps were buying films they had not even seen. This interesting fact was printed on the same page that claimed that Box Office receipts were up for January, in spite of the predicted collapse of the American economy.

Ah, the American economy. Yes, the playing field is changing under our feet. And people are always looking to the last war – or, in this case, the last depression. I keep hearing that movies are ‘recession-proof’ and that people went to movies to escape their woes during the 30s. But theater tickets did not top ten bucks then, and the studios did cut budgets, like it or not.

There’s a big difference in two bits for an A movie and a B movie, plus cartoons and newsreels. And you could stay in the theater all day if you chose – which many people did, to say out of the cold in the winter and out of the heat in the summer.

But let’s get back to the second component of how Hollywood will handle exhibition in an uncertain future: marketing.

We hear much of the long tail these days, and not enough people know what that means. In the case of exhibition, the long tail means finding niche markets or select groups to whom to promote a film.

Gone are the days of full-page ads – hell, there may not even be newspapers around when you are reading this – and marketing to a wide audience. Using focused marketing, the studios can reach only soccer fans or only horror fans or only tightly-framed demographics.

As costs go up and marketing techniques become more sophisticated (and your personal preferences become commodities traded behind the computer screen), we will see the entire scale of marketing change.

And that’s the topic for a future CineScene blog!

(Well, along with why you won’t really have to worry about watching films on your phone.)

David Hakim is an assistant director, producer, and publicity expert who developed campaigns for every major Hollywood studio and handled publicity for the Motion Picture Academy. Find him in the Reel Directory online: www.reeldirectory.com.

All material copyright 2009 David Hakim and may not be duplicated - ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.