Hollywood Gloom and Doom: Chapter 173
After spending a week in Canada last week, seeing an amazing assortment of movies at the Toronto Film Festival, it was hard not to come away with the distinct impression that the movie business has entered the post-specialty division era. There were about half as many specialty division acquisition executives prowling the theaters as there were two years ago, and for the most part, the ones who still had a job kept their wallets firmly shut. With the exception of one high-profile bidding war over Darren Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," the sales were few and far between. Obviously I'm using some rough math, but imagine being in the shoes of movie financiers today where out of the thousands of films submitted to a major film festival, 400 or 500 are actually accepted and screened, and out of those, barely half a dozen get acquired and guaranteed any kind of serious U.S. theatrical distribution. You'd have better odds getting your kid into Harvard.
What's gone wrong? I happened to have lunch today with Kevin Goetz, president of the Motion Picture Group at OTX, one of Hollywood's leading entertainment consumer research firms. Goetz is one of the most respected research guys in the business -- if you want to know whether Disney can get men to see the talking-dog film "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" or whether Warners can woo young women to its gun-slinging Western "Appaloosa," Goetz would be the man with the answers. But even OTX has been hurt by the collapse of the specialty-division business. In less than a year, Goetz has lost a host of key clients, notably New Line Cinema, Warner Independent Pictures, Picturehouse, Fox Atomic and Paramount Vantage.
What does he think has gone wrong? Here's a few of his provocative theories:
Hollywood has to realize that the bar is a lot higher today in terms of getting even loyal moviegoers to see films in a theater, Goetz says. People today simply have way too many other choices when it comes to entertainment:
"I see five or six movies every week as part of my work, and I have to admit that only 40% or 50%, at best, deserve to be shown in theaters," says Goetz. "You have to find a way to event-ize your movie to succeed theatrically. On my questionaires, I ask the people who are the biggest fans of a movie -- the people who say they'd definitely recommend it to their friends -- when do you need to see the film? On the opening weekend? Within the first two weeks? When you get a chance? Or when it comes out on DVD? And you can't imagine how many people, even the big fans of the movie, will say, 'I'll wait for the DVD.' "
Goetz knew the world was changing when he was seated on a plane a year ago next to someone who was watching a movie on his cellphone. "I couldn't believe it, but I started getting engrossed in it myself. People simply have developed a whole new way of consuming entertainment."
Goetz is a big believer in psychographic research: "You have to reach your audience where they live. They're not going to find you because, if you're a specialty film, you don't have the money to compete with the marketing budgets of the big studio movies. You can't really rely on big stars either because, outside of someone like Will Smith, there are very few stars who are the sole reason in encouraging people to see a film. You have to give people a very specific reason to see a movie in a theater today."
This especially applies to specialty movies released at Oscar time. Goetz, now a member of the Motion Picture Academy, did some research--on his own viewing habits. "Of the 100 or so movies I got from the academy, there were four movies that I really felt I had to see in a theater: 'No Country For Old Men,' 'Atonement,' 'The Diving Bell and the Butterfly' and 'There Will Be Blood.' Don't get me wrong -- there were lots of other movies I really liked. But I was happy to watch the others at home. Even 'Once,' which was one of my favorite movies of the year, I simply felt I could watch it at home. When it comes to films that go after a special audience, I think today only the strong will survive."
I'm not sure I agree with all of Goetz's ideas, especially when it comes to event-izing your movie, which is a lot easier said than done. But his point is well taken: If you don't have a truly compelling source of appeal for your film, you probably don't have a good enough reason to make it, not if your dream is to it in the multiplex, instead of sitting comfortably on the shelf in your local video store.
Photo of Kevin Goetz by James Quinton / WireImages.com / For The Times.