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Why Are They Always Blaming the Audience?

We love movies in movie theaters, so maybe it’s time we blame the content, not the audience.
The Audience2-Script

Every year it seems, there are conversations about the demise of the movie theater as a viable entertainment experience. Every year since about 1912. These chats consistently ask the wrong questions, make incorrect assumptions, and always…ALWAYS blame us…the audience. I say enough! We love movies in movie theaters, so maybe it’s time we blame the content, not the audience.

Variety Magazine published an article recently exploring why 2022 has been a somewhat dismal year for big-budget movies in theaters. It included this summation:

‘Even as COVID cases dwindle and normal life rebounds, the movie theater business hasn’t been able to regain its footing.’

To support this assumption, it used the box office performance of these movies: Black Adam, Amsterdam, Lightyear, Moonfall, and Strange World.

Strange World. Courtesy Disney.

Strange World. Courtesy Disney.

See! It cried – movies with big budgets are crashing because people aren’t going to theaters anymore because we can watch everything at home, and there’s covid and society has shifted and blah blah blah.

This same argument was made when sound was invented. And when television was invented. When the VCR was invented, then DVDs, then streaming. And yet, cinema has survived. How is that possible? The answer is ridiculously simple.

Those 5 movies are at best mediocre. Some are genuinely ‘bad’. It doesn’t matter how many hundreds of millions were spent – the end result was disappointing. The audience – us – responded to this mediocrity by not wasting our time seeing it. Or seeing it, and telling our friends not to bother. You know, typical human behavior when confronted with something uninspiring no matter how badly the creators want you to love it.

[Why ‘Prey’ Works and ‘Lightyear’ Doesn’t]

Imagine if we didn’t go to a restaurant because the food and reviews were average, and the restaurant industry blamed us and claimed eating out was a dying cultural trait because we now have ‘air fryers’ at home.

These discussions since about 1912 almost never blame the people/studios who deliver this mediocrity. Instead, the ‘industry’ panics about the future of theaters, claim audience trends have shifted, blame ‘kids today’ for having too many distractions, or anything and everything rather than accept the truth. People don’t see crappy movies in the numbers needed to make some of these crappy movies profitable because they are crappy and we are not stupid.

Oh sure, sometimes we get conned, or get caught up in the hype – no one said we were perfect. But those movies (I’m looking at you ‘Transformers’ and some ‘Star Wars’ films) are exceptions. As a general rule, we are pretty good at smelling trash, and we tend to avoid it.

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It’s as if the Studios believe we, the audience, should accept whatever they deliver, because they spent top dollar making it. They assembled actors we like, gave them trucks full of cash, elaborate craft services, flew them to exotic green screen sound stages, then held focus groups, wrote lengthy reports involving the word ‘quadrant’, and spent more cash on marketing. They did all they could for us, so if it fails to return huge profits, it’s our fault.

It doesn’t matter if the script is gibberish (Black Adam), or a wandering mess (Amsterdam), or just lost (Lightyear), or a misfire (Strange World), or a freaking nonsensical and tired disaster/alien movie in these disastrous times (Moonfall). It’s not their fault they made average movies, it’s our fault for not going to see them and as a result, movie theaters are endangered species.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Credit: Scott Garfield. © 2019 Paramount Pictures Corporation.

Tom Cruise plays Capt. Pete "Maverick" Mitchell in Top Gun: Maverick from Paramount Pictures, Skydance and Jerry Bruckheimer Films. Credit: Scott Garfield. © 2019 Paramount Pictures Corporation.

If you need the greatest proof of my argument ever delivered – consider Top Gun: Maverick. No, it’s not the greatest film ever made – that’s subjective nonsense. But it is a film that delivered the audience compelling entertainment. So much so, we were literally willing to risk our lives during a covid surge to go see it – multiple times. We liked it, we told our friends, they liked it, and it made a ton of cash. During a freaking pandemic. There will never be better proof that if you build it well, they will come.

So next time Variety, or any other organization decides to sink the boot into the public, I hope they try a different approach. How about: ‘Why can’t the studios lift their game – we should demand better than whatever Black Adam was supposed to be.’ Or ‘Are studios spending too much money making movies for all the wrong reasons?’

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam in Black Adam. Courtesy Warner Bros. 

Dwayne Johnson as Black Adam in Black Adam. Courtesy Warner Bros. 

Here’s why cinema has survived and will continue to survive. We, as humans, are social creatures. We will never want to spend our entire lives in our homes, even if we can. As long as teenagers need a dark room to take a date, parents need an excuse to leave the kids with a babysitter, or people want to escape their dull life for a couple of hours, the future of cinema is safe. The only genuine threats are a lack on interesting content, theater owners intent on pricing themselves out of the market, or they stop growing corn to pop.

Enough of this hand-wringing about the shocking realization that mediocre movies deliver mediocre returns. I know movie making is subjective, and hard, the audience is fickle, and none of this fits into a corporate dynamic of predictability studios are desperate to find (comic book movies anyone?) Maybe, studios, it’s time to accept that the more money you spend doesn’t increase the chances of success, and we, the audience, want to be entertained, to connect with characters, and most of all, be treated with respect. We will flock to see a movie we enjoy, even under threat of death, and we usually support a good story well told. Maybe focus on that, accept responsibility for failures, and stop trying to pin it on societal shifts. We’ve loved going to movies for over a century, and that ain’t changing anytime soon.

Long Live Cinema!


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