Where have the audiences gone?

Where do you see yourself? At the top of the box office? When I asked a friend if she had seen any movies recently, she said, ‘Do people even still go to the movies?’ Is there a place left for the cinema?

My colleague looks back with nostalgia at the films of the 1970s. ‘Chinatown’, ‘All the President’s Men’. Could these films be made today? Or, perhaps a better question, could they find an audience and be as successful today as they were back then.

Are there any good ones left? Sure, we have journalistic movies like ‘Spotlight’ and ‘The Post’. But did a large audience, a ‘Chinatown’ sized audience, see those? Should they have been made for the small screen? These were dramatic stories without fantasy elements, now to be relegated to the small screen: HBO, Netflix, Showtime.

Maybe this isn’t a bad thing. Should we just go to where the audience is? Should we embrace the streaming services, the smart phones and tablets? Should we forget about comedy features and be satisfied with the four inch screen of Funny or Die? Did the wide audience abandon the cinema, or did cinema abandon the wide audience?

I remember days of yore, before the advent of HDTVs, where people still flocked to the cinema and it was a big deal. A time when movies meant something, when spontaneous applause in the middle of a movie was a possibility, when movies weren’t overflowing with super-heroes, fantasy, sequels, toy-films, and the like.

Movies were events, with the best creating worlds unlike we’ve seen before, bringing out real feeling, and with a sincerity in the story-telling. Movies like Toy Story, an original blockbuster with memorable, lovable characters, humor, and stunning innovation put to good use. Independence Day, The Matrix, the first Spider-Man, Jurassic Park. The stories were original and felt new and fresh, the characters were likable, the stars were bigger, and the scene was set for a national conversation about a single movie. Gladiator comes to mind as a stunning piece of emotional artwork about slavery, revenge, freedom, self-sacrifice for the freedom of the Roman world.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy comes to mind as an event which presented hope in the face of evil empires, with incredible charm, humor and amazing new technologies put to good use. I remember the theater bursting into cheers when Eowyn stabbed a Ring Wraith in the face with the line, ‘I am no man!’ I remember sitting on the edge of my seat every time Heath Ledger’s The Joker appeared on screen in The Dark Knight. In those days, the villains were badder, more interesting, and the heroes were brighter. These pictures commanded attention.

Now, just like television, everything is fragmented. No single movie becomes the blockbuster event of the year; something all ages can talk about. Black Panther? My parents, my uncle, my grandma, my co-worker – they don’t like super-hero movies and didn’t see it. I saw it, and to me, it was a safe, generic Marvel movie, without personality, totally uninteresting. The only innovation was having a black super-hero… which was already done in the cartoon Static Shock. Why not give the first black movie super-hero a more interesting movie? Left behind are the mature adult audience who want more from a movie than action and punches.

The key is originality, likability of characters, and pathos. We need to see a hero who has a dream, but who gets beaten down and abused, but perseveres.. A hero with lots of personality. The Spielbergs and Lucases will soo be leaving us, and what will we have left?

Can movies still be big, but also, original and artistic and appeal to everyone? Can movies be entertainment without getting too preachy? Could Casablanca be made today, or Gone With the Wind? Lawrence of Arabia? We just need good stories, minus the costumes and punches.

Movies can become big if they are different in an appealing way. We need experimentation in cinema, because innovation is sorely lacking. With current CGI technologies, everything is possible, but in the hands of people without vision, it is useless. Without innovation, this hundred-plus year old art form may soon be on the way out.

Bigger stories that are more daring, bigger stars and personalities. American stories that are about us today and what we’re dealing with, and depict our values of liberty, equality, family, hard-working attitude, our good-naturedness, our rugged independence and optimism, and hope. Or, the loss of the American dream.

For these stories to cut through the clutter, we need stars with personality, a major studio or distributor to release it and put a lot of marketing money behind it.

Where can you find viewers? Browsing Facebook? Instagram? Twitter and Snapchat? Late night shows? Aspiring actors, directors, writers, should cultivate their fans. Fan clubs? TV ads, newspapers? Do people still read newspapers? Billboards, bus sides, radio? But all this won’t help if the acting, the story, the suspense or the innovation is missing. As someone once said on my first day of work in the film industry, ‘If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.’

Studios… understand and take risks with your artists, open the doors, nurture your artists, and realize that a film that even if audiences reject one project, it doesn’t mean the next one won’t be great.

So where have the audiences gone? They’re still here, around, and everywhere. Limitless, in fact. But you just have to present something worthwhile, because movie and TV audiences are starving… too many options, but nothing good. So people revert to watching old Seinfeld episodes. Give them something good.

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