I grew up without television. It never arrived in the small town where I lived until I was about ten. So I grew up watching the movies, initially Saturday afternoon matinees, which my older brother begrudgingly escorted me to under firm orders from my mother, who was looking for brief respite from the burden of three disorderly boys. Admission was ten cents, popcorn five cents. (If these prices seem unbelievable to you, all I can say is… me too.)
Movies were it, a prime cultural (and for me eventually professional) mover, right through my adolescence and early adulthood. For me, TV has tended to be a kind of entertainment sideline, something to be watched when a new show came around with some serious buzz, but more often just a passive filler of downtime, material to unwind with at the end of a busy day.
That has of course all changed in recent years, and not just for me. I don’t go to the movies much anymore—that is I don’t go to the movie houses—and, what’s more, movies don’t seem to matter much anymore. These days movies are mostly noisy spectacle, big, flashy events, but events with very little to offer other than raucous entertainment. Comic book movies are the dominant genre of today, and, no matter how I slice it, those comic book characters don’t really connect with life as I’m living it, day to day. And, as I say, it’s not just me, as someone from an older demographic. Today, unfortunately, the audience for the movies is smaller, and more narrow than it’s ever been.
Movie audiences peaked in 1946, the year The Best Years of Our Lives, The Big Sleep, and It’s A Wonderful Life were released, and 100 million tickets were sold every week. By 1955—when Guys and Dolls, Rebel Without A Cause, and The Seven Year Itch were released—with the advent of television, that audience had dropped to less than half that.
But the movies survived television and found a ‘silver’ age (‘gold’ being the studio-dominated 40s) in the decade from 1965 to 1975, when we watched movies like The Godfather I and II, Midnight Cowboy and Chinatown, and the works of Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini and Francois Truffaut enjoyed theatrical release right across North America. It was a time when movies did seem to have something to say; they spoke to me about the changing world I was in direct daily contact with.
Then came the blockbusters—Jaws and Star Wars—and the realization that Hollywood could spend hundreds, not tens of millions of dollars on a movie and garner just as large an increase in returns. Movies have never been the same.
Today less than 40 million people in North America go to see a movie once a month. In a 2012 poll done by Harris International, 61% of respondents said they rarely or never go to the movies. Why would you when you have that wide screen at home, ad-free, with the pause button at your disposal? The most you’ll likely pay to watch in private is half of what you would at the movie house.
And then, this year, we had a summer of blockbuster flops. The worst was The Lone Ranger, made for $225 million and about to cost Walt Disney at least $100 million. Both Steven Speilberg and George Lucas have said that the industry is set to “implode,” with the distribution side morphing into something closer to a Broadway model where fewer movies are released; they stay in theatres longer, but with much higher ticket prices. Movies as spectacle.
(If you’re interested in reading more, an elegant, elegiac tribute to the run of the movies is The Big Screen, published last year and written by David Thomson, a critic born in 1941 who has thus been around for a good-sized chunk of film history.)
It may well be that movies, as the shared public experience that I’ve known, are coming to the end of a roughly 100-year run. It was rapid, glamorous, often tawdry, sometimes brilliant, once in a while even significant, but technology is quickly trampling the movies. If you were there for even a part it, you might feel blessed.