Are audiences growing up – and can Hollywood grow up with them?

Trying to get Hollywood to change direction is not unlike trying to steer an elephant by poking it in its thick-hided ass with a matchstick; it doesn’t exactly respond like a Maserati.

And that’s a problem because there are some box office signs suggesting the American movie industry needs – may, in fact, desperately need, and soon – to change the path it’s been cannon-balling along on since the late 1970s.  Unfortunately, Hollywood’s history suggests nobody should hold their breath waiting for someone to turn the wheel until after that bus has gone over a cliff.  American moviemaking is great at glomming on to technological innovation – Dolby sound, 3-D, CGI — anything that brings in a crowd by offering a showier show.  The industry’s track record on what to do when the crowd stops coming — on divining and interpreting and appropriately responding to changes in the cultural landscape — is, however, a bit less auspicious.

Sixty-five years ago, Hollywood was in a somewhat similar situation to the one that might be a-brewing now, and the industry response to that earlier circumstance was, by any measure, disastrous.  The cultural signals were misread, the disconnect between studio management and the ticket-buying public near total, and the net impact devastating and long-term.  It would take three decades for Hollywood to crawl out of the hole.  Based on the movies the majors are making these days and seem committed to keep making, and who is – and isn’t – coming to see them, despite the GPS screaming “Recalibrating!  Recalibrating!” the powers that be appear delusionally committed to driving over that same damned precipice once again.

Going into 1945, the reigning kings of the motion picture industry had every reason to feel good about future prospects.  They had weathered fifteen tough years of economic turmoil and war.  By the mid-40s, they had more than reclaimed the viewership lost during The Depression, with average weekly attendance hitting an all-time high of 84 million in 1943 and, again, in 1944.

Think of it:  84 million…in a country with a population of about 130 million with over 15 million of them off in uniform fighting World War II.  Granted, the number doesn’t take into account repeat viewers, but it was the equivalent of two of every three human beings in the United States going to the movies each week.  The expectation was things were only going to get better when the Great Crusade was over and those 15 million men and women in service came home.

As predictions go, it was about as wrong as wrong could be.

World War II ended in August of 1945.  By the end of that same year, despite the troops beginning to come home, attendance dropped. Not a lot, but enough to notice, from 84 million to 82 million.

If the studio honchos were hoping it was just a minor blip, it was a hope thoroughly dashed the following year as attendance dropped again…and kept dropping.  Except for some modest upticks in the mid-50s, attendance wouldn’t stop falling for another decade and a half, finally bottoming out in 1973 at 17 million admissions per week.

Think of it:  17 million…in a country with a population of 200 million.  The movies had gone from an entertainment visited weekly by two out of every three people, to one attended by maybe one in 12.

The massive loss of audience in the postwar years is often attributed to the introduction of a then new-fangled form of home entertainment called “television,” but the fact is attendance was dropping – and dropping steeply – even before there was much television to watch or many people to watch it.  In 1947, network prime time programming barely measured more than a couple of hours a night, rarely on more than one network at a time, yet weekly movie attendance had already fallen to 73 million.  By 1950, the four then networks (ABC, CBS, DuMont, NBC) were managing to provide a full prime time slate, but still, only 9% of American homes had a TV set, yet weekly attendance had nosedived by over a third from the 1943-44 peak to 55 million.  TV ownership wouldn’t hit the 50% mark for another four years by which time admissions were already down to 47 million per week.

Obviously, those early losses were about more than people staying home to watch Uncle Miltie and The $64,000 Question.

So…what happened?

In the 1940s and through much of the 1950s (and in some cases, even into the 1960s), the major studios were still being run by the men who’d made the majors major in the teens and ‘20s:  people like Louie Mayer at MGM, the Warner brothers at their eponymous studio, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, Harry Cohn at Columbia.  For over three decades, these one-time street peddlers and hustling salesmen had been perfectly attuned to the movie-going public:  people like those from the urban neighborhoods where they’d grown up – working stiffs, immigrants and children of immigrants, a half-educated, not particularly sophisticated blue collar populace which usually liked its entertainment simple and fun.

The problem for the old movie moguls was that the public they knew so well stopped coming to the movies.  Some had aged out of movie-going, while others…

The war had changed the way people saw the world, particularly those 15 million men and women who’d come home in 1945.  They’d seen a side of the human story Hollywood had rarely shown, and that made it hard to swallow the sugar and glitz which, for so long, had been the movies’ stock and trade.

Besides, those returnees didn’t have time for movies.  They came home to start working, again, to re-embrace their families or to start one.  Millions went back to school on the GI Bill, bought first homes, entered job training.  They were busy launching the country on the most prosperous time in its history.  The movies could wait.

So, who was going to the movies?

Young people.  Teens.  Kids.  Hollywood’s own late-40s research told them that even at that time the majority of ticket-buyers were 21 and under.

Only this was a new breed of young people, a breed the country had never seen before.

Before the war, most teens never finished high school.  Their awareness of a world beyond the horizon was, generally, limited and parochial.  By the time they were 18, they often already had full-time jobs, and, not uncommonly, were supporting a family.

But after the war, teens finished school, many went on to college.  They knew about rockets and atomic power and the Cold War.  They had more leisure time and, from either allowances and/or part-time jobs, money in their pockets; money to spend.

The moguls running the studios looked at these kids, looked at their well-educated, financially cushy suburban middle class white collar families…and didn’t get it.  They were still making movies for that urban working class they’d grown up with, but those people were coming less and less.

The studios made big splashy musicals and big splashy epics, they started slapping bold color on their wider screens trying to beat TV by out-sizing and out-dazzling the little box.  Oh, the studios could still score a huge hit with good ol’ fashioned Hollywood tale-tellin’ i.e. Cecil B. DeMille epics like The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) and The Ten Commandments (1956), tuneful musicals like South Pacific (1958) and White Christmas (1953), Mike Todd’s globe-trotting star-studded cameo showcase Around the World in 80 Days (1956), the grand scale soap opera Giant (1956), and the like.  But the hits didn’t balance out the losses, and nearly every year fewer people went to the movies.

The Old Hollywooders looked at Marlon Brando and saw a mumbler, but the kids got him, identified with his surliness, and made him a star.  They did the same thing with James Dean, feeling in synch with his tortured teen outsider in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and East of Eden (1955), and made him an icon.  They dug the seamy shadow world of the new noirs and the sleepy-eyed sexuality of a Bad Boy like Robert Mitchum.  The first generation of the Space Age and Atomic Age, they launched the sci fi craze in print and screen and mystified the studio bosses by turning cheapies like Them! (1954) and The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) and The Blob (1958) into box office chart toppers.

There were moviemakers who did connect with the kids; carnival barkers like William Castle, or a simpatico like Roger Corman whose schlocky low-budget monster pics somehow spoke to them in their own generational voice.

But Old Hollywood didn’t talk to them, didn’t hear them, didn’t even recognize their language.  The industry didn’t stabilize until the old kings had died, retired, been sidelined or ousted.  And even then, the movie business didn’t truly begin to recover until the mid-1970s.

With Jaws (1975), Steven Spielberg showed the majors what they’d been missing; that summer wasn’t just a dumping ground for low-budget Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach junk for the kids home on summer vacation.  Rather, it was a gold mine, an unbelievably rich mother lode capable of producing more money than Hollywood had ever dreamed any one movie could earn in a single release.  That year, total box office broke the $2 billion mark for the first time.

But a better lesson –  a lesson that took deep root and became Hollywood’s road map for the next 30 years – came from George Lucas and Star Wars (1977) which helped push total box office past $2 billion for the second time to a then record $2.3 billion.  Make the right kind of movie – big, fantastic, simplistic, packed with dazzle and action – and you could get the kids in in droves, get them coming back time and again.  Particularly young males.  They’d come two and three times (even more for the right flick), and if you nurtured the franchise, invested in it instead of turning out cheapie sequels which had been Hollywood’s usual penchant, they’d come back to the follow-ups two and three times, and they’d buy the books (people still read for fun in those days) and the albums (as well as bought albums – on vinyl, no less), the games and toys and collectible action figures.  Later, they’d buy the VHS tapes and then DVDs, and you could package and repackage franchise installments in sets and special editions and Director’s Cuts ad infinitum ad nauseum, and they’d shell out for all of it.  They’d watch the TV spin-offs and buy all their related merchandise.  Still later and even more lucratively, they’d also pay for the videogame, and then videogames of the sequels and the TV spinoffs and on and on and on.

Star Wars opened Hollywood’s Golden Gate to a parade of space adventures and superheroes, wizards and action fests of greater and greater and more overwhelming scale, each successful franchise its own little multi-faceted cottage industry fueled by the contents of fanboy pockets.  The road to monstrous box office riches ran not through Cannes, but now through Comic-Con.  The industry had learned the lesson so quickly and so well, that by the time Warner Bros. picked up the film rights for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels in the late 1990s, two years before the first film hit the screen every division at Warners was mapping out marketing and ancillary strategies for the movies 10 years out!

Attendance and box office stirred from the doldrums of the early 1970s and year by year the new Hollywood chieftains breathed easier and easier as they toted up higher and higher receipts.  By 1980, attendance was back up to nearly 20 million per week and total box office for the year stood at $2.7 billion; by 1990, nearly 23 million tickets were being sold weekly and total b.o. had almost doubled to $5 billion; 2000 and weekly attendance had climbed to 27.5 million and annual box office to $7.7 billion.

The attendance high water mark was 2002 with 30.3 million tickets sold each week; maybe still pitiful by Old Hollywood standards, but a hell of an improvement over 1973’s basement-dwelling numbers.

Then in 2003, the bad news started to come in.

It wasn’t steady — there’d be upticks here and there – but a definite southward trend developed in attendance numbers.  By 2010, weekly attendance had slipped to 27.8 million; a drop of almost 10% from 2002’s crest.

Perhaps more threatening, movie-going among young males – the financial cornerstone of the revived Hollywood – was also on a downward slide, with 2010 attendance among 18-24 year-olds off more than 12% from 2009.  The industry was still able to shore up box office earnings with inflated prices and surcharges for 3-D exhibitions (2010 box office was the second highest on record), but it didn’t change the fundamental problem – the same ailment the industry had faced but couldn’t diagnose in 1945 – that fewer people were coming to the movies.

So…what’s happening?

It may be that in hanging its box office door on the young male demo, Hollywood hung its economic fate on one hinge, and now the screws in that hinge are loosening.

A number of film writers have speculated that the movie industry, as one critic put it, is chasing “…after a generation that would rather be on the social network than watch (the movie).”  It can’t be a coincidence that the critically-reviled, youth-skewing Battle:  Los Angeles, with an audience 68% male, ruled the box office on its opening weekend ($35.6 million), with both pans and its few positives likening it less to a story-driven movie than to a shooter-driven videogame.

But Hollywood’s problem might be bigger than how to tap into the gamer sensibility.  It may be the more unbeatable one of fundamental demographic change.

Looking at attendance figures from the late 1970s on, as a percentage of population they never rose much above 10% (as opposed to 1943/44 where attendance equaled 64%), a stasis suggesting much of Hollywood’s appeal was to the same demographically-limited audience, with those aging out more or less replaced by those aging in.

The economic revival of Hollywood begun in the 1970s was built on a Baby Boomer demographic; the largest generational cohort in the country.  It’s still the largest generational cohort in the country, only now its youngest members qualify for AARP membership.  Combined with seniors, there are now more older people than younger in the U.S.  The generations coming up behind the Boomers – Xers, Yers, Millennials, whatever you want to call them – are significantly fewer in number.

In other words, fewer young people – including young males – may be going to the movies simply because there are fewer young people – including fewer young males.

Which, as much as a changing sensibility, may be why 2010 weekly attendance numbers represented only about 9% of the population.

Think of it:  in a country of 307 million people, Hollywood attracts less than one in ten to the movies each week.

But, at the same time fewer young people are going to the movies, more older people seem to be buying tickets.

Two thousand ten produced a bumper crop of the kind of drama/character-driven movies which typically skew toward an older audience.  Though many were the type of movies which usually only find a home on the art house circuit, their returns were hardly art house returns, and with budgets well below the average for a major studio release (in 2010, $65 million excluding marketing costs), they were enormously profitable by any measure.

Consider how the rate of return for the top “grown-up” movies of 2010 – some of which are still in release and still earning — stacks up against that of the top-earning big budget flicks:

Domestic gross  budget

(in millions)

True Grit $170       38

The King’s Speech $133       15

Black Swan $106       13

The Social Network $97       40

The Fighter $93       25

The Town $92                  37

TOTAL           $ 691      168

Vs.

Alice in Wonderland 334      200

Iron Man 2 312      200

The Twilight Saga:  Eclipse 301        68

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Part 1 295       250

Inception 293       160

Tron Legacy 171       170

TOTAL          1.706    1.048

Collectively, the older-skewing flicks returned four bucks in domestic release for every dollar spent, as opposed to a nearly one-to-one return for movies aimed at the fanboys.

And it’s not like the gray-templed and blue rinse crowd is exclusively wedded to brooding, downbeat serious dramas.  They like their fun, too – as long as it’s tuned to their sensibilities.  Older ticket buyers pushed the $58 million actioner Red to a domestic gross of over $90 million, no doubt because they enjoyed watching fellow AARPers kick ass i.e. Bruce Willis (56 years young), John Malkovich (58), Hellen Mirren (66 and still smokin’), Morgan Freeman (74), Brian Cox (65), and Ernest Borgnine (older than dirt at 94).  The genre-jumbled thriller The Adjustment Bureau was the top-earning live-action release when it opened March 11 ($21.2 million for the weekend) with nearly three-quarters of its audience in the 30-and-up age range.

It should be said it’s entirely possible the strong showing of many older-skewing films released around the turn of the year might have been due to the majors putting out such a horrible holiday season slate (which included The Tourist, Yogi Bear, Gulliver’s Travels in tail-end 2010, and Season of the Witch and The Dilemma in January 2011).  Certainly, there were a number of critically praised movies of the Black Swan/The Fighter ilk released within the same span whose box office was more art house typical i.e. Winter’s Bone ($6.5 million), Blue Valentine ($9.6 million), Rabbit Hole ($2.2 million).  And, some truly crappy movies aimed at the young audience did the kind of business the majors always hope youth-targeted crappy movies will do i.e. The Clash of the Titans ($163 million), Grown Ups ($162 million), Little Fockers ($148 million), The Last Airbender ($132 million), and Due Date ($101 million). The surge in grown-up heavy earners could be just a flash squall, a blip in the graph line, what Hollywood likes to refer to as “a non-recurring phenomenon.”

And, in the interest of full disclosure, it should also be pointed out that those big budget effects fests typically do blockbuster business overseas and in ancillary markets, and that they have merchandising possibilities open to them more adult films don’t.  After all, it’s not like people are going to storm toy stores to buy King’s Speech action figures of George VI that stutter when you squeeze their foot.

Which would explain the apparent thinking behind Hollywood’s tactical response to the situation which is to draft every caped crusader, masked superhero, comic book figure they can find and give him (it’s almost always a him) an expensive, effects-packed shove on to the silver screen.  There’ll be another Batman, another Iron Man, more X-Men, a rebooted Spider-Man, a rebooted Daredevil, a re-rebooted Superman, Green Lantern (for this year with an estimated budget of $150 million), Thor ($150 million), Captain America:  The First Avenger ($140 million), and The Avengers in 2012 which will fold Marvel Comics’ A-list of superheroes all into one flick.  That’s not to mention another Star Trek, and more pirates cruising the Caribbean.

If, however, you are of the mind that what’s going on is more than a non-recurring phenomenon, then this is like watching a blackjack player in the hole trying to pull himself out by doubling down on the same kinds of cards that put him in the hole in the first place.

It’s still early in the year, but it’s beginning to look like the majors might want to re-think their more-of-the-same thinking.  The $120 million The Green Hornet stalled with a box office under $100 million, Season of the Witch died in the starting gate at $25 million, some sci fiers for the tweener set – I am Number Four and Beastly – are also heading down the tubes, The Hangover wannabe Hall Pass seems to be stumbling, and Red Riding Hood – the first in a series of fairy tale adaptations trying to jump on the Alice in Wonderland wagon – is dying on its feet (still to come:  Hansel and Gretel:  Witch Hunters, Jack the Giant Killer, and no less than three takes on Snow White).  And – here’s the punchline – attendance is down so far this year…again.

“Recalibrating!  Recalibrating!” is going unheard because, again, someone seems to be asleep at the wheel.  Or worse, the driver is convinced, “I know where I’m going.”

- Bill Mesce

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By Bill Mesce

Bill Mesce, Jr. is a produced screenwriter and playwright, and a published author of fiction and nonfiction, including Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema. He spent 27 years with pay-TV giant Home Box Office, and now teaches at several universities in his native New Jersey.

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5 Responses to Are audiences growing up – and can Hollywood grow up with them?

  1. PB210 April 24, 2012 at 8:22 pm

    Part of the reason for my last comment; I find it interesting why people would not call Star Wars “a comic book movie” when I have gone into a convenience store (not a comic book store) and seen a spinner rack full of Star Wars comic books, and seen a supermarket stock Star Wars comic books. The convenience store had had at least one Conan comic book a while earlier, but I did not see one later. The store did not have any Zorro, Doc Savage, the Green Hornet, etc. comic books on the shelves.

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  2. PB210 April 24, 2012 at 8:15 pm

    “Which would explain the apparent thinking behind Hollywood’s tactical response to the situation which is to draft every caped crusader, masked superhero, comic book figure they can find and give him (it’s almost always a him) an expensive, effects-packed shove on to the silver screen”.

    Incidentally, I thought I would note that I find it interesting if you exclude comic strip heroes such as Flash Gordon and the Phantom, radio heroes such as the Lone Ranger, pulp heroes such as Zorro, Conan, the Shadow and Doc Savage, what sort of averages for comic book based films would you arrive at? I find it amusing that pre-late 1930′s properties such as Zorro and the Shadow sometimes find themselves lumped in as “comic book movies” yet people do not seem to often under that rubric include Star Wars (inspired by Flash Gordon), Robocop (inspired by Iron Man), etc.

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  3. Bill Mesce March 27, 2011 at 6:35 pm

    By WW II, for the price of a movie ticket you got an A feature, a B feature, a cartoon or comedy short, an episode from a serial, and a newsreel. When you got a night at the movies, you literally got a whole night at the movies. It’s doubtful anyone was sitting through all that for the sake of a 5-minute newsreel. Keep in mind that attendance had been climbing even before we got into the war.
    People had money in their pockets for the first time in a decade and a half, there was near full employment (both factors because of war industries), gas rationing meant looking for entertainment close to home, with many factories working three shifts some cities were hopping 24 hours a day. In short, a number of factors were driving attendance just as no one factor was responsible for its erosion.

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  4. Dew March 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    The WW2 numbers had little to do with newsreel footage. Most people got updates from the newspapers. The news was included with the price of attending the film.

    Today film moguls miss the point. Iron Man was good because the story and direction were brilliant. The sequel failed because it was more important to showcase Scarlett Johansen’s cleavage than feature a good plot. Just look to the X-Men franchise, rather than #3 serving as a horrible warning, the studios consider it a banner to bring in more characters, bigger explosions, and better looking (read, younger) actors.

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  5. K. Jones March 27, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Could the high theater attendance during WW2 be explained by the fact that people were going to watch news reel footage about the war? It would explain the sudden drop in attendance after the war ended.

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