Film Studies: Not even a Jedi knight can get the movie biz out of this fix

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The Independent Culture

The word "chilling" has been used at last - and not, as George Lucas might have hoped, in relation to Revenge of the Sith. The "c" word came from Paul Dergarabedian, who runs the Exhibitor Relations Company, a group that tracks box-office numbers and trends. As a rule, Mr D is a happy shill for the movie business, but the biz this year is already down eight per cent (in tickets sold).

You should chant that number as you go hunting among those who have seen Star Wars with the idea of establishing whether anyone enjoyed it. I know, the reviews claimed it was better than episodes one and two, and the numbers were record-breaking. But there is zero buzz about the film: its look, its characters and its attitudes are still depressing. And not even its surge in business altered the eight-per-cent warning.

Reporting on this trend, Mr D addressed the suggestion that "maybe" the pictures weren't good enough for the people. What he said next is very much Mr D and (I think) more chilling than he knows: "Quality is a fixable problem," he said. "It is much more chilling if there is a cultural shift in people staying away from movies."

Let's leave "quality" aside for the moment - that's how the picture business thinks, after all. For it is now run by business-school experts who know so much more about market trends than putting magic on the screen (a knack that once belonged to a group of people who had no business training except running small movie theatres and asking the public, "Did you like it?").

Well, the market trends are clear: they see the audience increasingly devoted to home-entertainment from DVDs, and from video games. Sales of video game software were up in the last year... by eight per cent. (You don't have to have gone to business school to work it out.) What this means is that a business that deliberately eliminated its own approach to the public as a whole is now being abandoned by the kids it helped create. More or less in the years since Star Wars (1977) opened, the picture business identified a rich target in people from about 10 to 25. This was the group that was most interested in going to theatres, in special effects, and adolescent entertainment. To which they had every right: the movie business has always done well with kids and aimed at them. But once upon a time, that was part of a larger overall aim at the entire audience.

Increasingly as the Eighties turned to the Nineties, people over 40 were ignored by the movie business. There was idiocy in this because all other statistics confirmed that society was entering into a long period in which the fraction of people over 40 would grow and grow.

If you wanted to be smartass about it, you could say that the picture business observed other social trends and guessed that we were doing everything possible to ensure that people over 40 retained the gruesome mind-set, the educational levels and the hopes and fears of adolescents. And that did seem to be working very well: George W Bush is the first boy-president, after all.

But people over 40 have a stubborn way of preferring common sense and thinking for themselves. And what really chills Mr Dergarabedian is that just as elders have come to the conclusion that most mainstream movies are for idiots, so their kids have found new toys. Fewer people are going out to the movies. In America, where that trip may cost $10 a ticket in big cities, the audience is plainly dismayed at the drab "quality" of the pictures and increasingly uneasy about having to sit through ads before the pictures.

Meanwhile, Hollywood responded to early signs of a video game culture by making movies that resembled video games. But the kids who play those games know that duration is vital - they play days at a time. And the thing Mr D calls "quality", the thing he reckons is "fixable", is actually a lost habit. We had good films when studios made a set number a year so that some got through on automatic. Every picture now is a one-off venture, second-guessed to death by people who hope to make a Las Vegas killing on it. What Mr D will never grasp is the need in show business to trust people who love and know the show, people who get a kick out of moving audiences (as opposed to counting numbers). Is reversal possible? No, it is all over, and we know it.

You could try a book.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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