Or why multiplex theaters may be the death of quality cinema.
When I was growing up in Richmond, Virginia there were four old-style, single-screen movie theaters (Byrd, Capitol, Lowe’s and Willow Lawn Shopping Center). Although I cursed the fact that Sound of Music played for almost a year at the only one within walking distance, the other three offered movies which generally received Academy Award nominations or critical acclaim. Sometimes you had to wait for a movie to come to town, but the anticipation was worth it.
Today we have multiplex theaters with as many as 30 screens. The trend began in 1979 with the first 18 screen multiplex, soon followed by a 25-screen version which became known as a megaplex. There are advantages to this trend. Even though screens have shrunk in size, improvements in sound and digital projection add to the viewing experience. Blockbuster hits playing on multiple screens ensure available seats (though this never seemed to be a problem in classical theaters with as many 1500 seats compared to the average 300 seats in multiplex theaters). Multiple showings do have the advantage of more flexible starting times.
Unfortunately, each benefit derived from multiplex theaters comes with a cost, the most obvious being the need to fill each screen with content regardless of quality. Take a look at the movies with the ten highest box office receipts this past weekend (Source: Box Office Mojo). Only four of the ten received a majority of positive reviews according to Rotten Tomatoes. Take a closer look and you shouldn’t be surprised.
Six of the ten are sequels: Find Dory, Independence Day: Resurgence, The Conjuring 2, Now You See Me 2, X-Men Apocalypse, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows.
The Shallows is a Jaws derivative.
Central Intelligence is one more buddy movie drawing on the star power of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Kevin Hart.
Warcraft (the lowest rated at 30 percent) is a spin-off of a popular video game.
Free State of Jones, an adaptation of the book of the same name, is the only “fresh face” on the top ten. According to the critics, while the film had huge potential “it is not enough to make up for its stilted treatment of a fascinating real-life story.” (NOTE: I have not seen it, but wonder if there is a scene in which Matthew McConaughey encourages former slaves to seek freedom by beating on his chest and shouting, “All right! All right!”)
When you have so much space to fill, the priority becomes marketing instead of quality cinema. Look at the 2015 films with the three highest box office receipts: Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World & Avengers: Age of Ultron. Star Wars is a special case, but alone spent over $66 million on TV advertising. And it paid off pulling in over $2 billion in box office receipts not to mention the residuals from Star Wars toys and other paraphernalia. Can you imagine what a studio would do with Gone With The Wind today? Would we see Scarlett and Rhett Barbie Dolls? Or Ashley Wilkes action figures?
So here’s my question? If there were fewer multiplexes would more people have gone to see the following 2016 Oscar nominees (box office ranking): Spotlight (62nd), The Big Short (44th), Brooklyn (70th) or Bridge of Spies (42nd)? There is a more disturbing question. Who is responsible for this trend in cinema quality? Risk averse major movie studios who rely on movies which follow a tried and true box office formula or the audiences who keep paying to see them? The answer is probably BOTH.
For what it’s worth.