Will People Skip The Movies in a Down Economy?

You may have heard that the American economy is in a bit of a downturn. Maybe you noticed it when you took to living in your car after your home was foreclosed upon, or when you realized you couldn't afford to fill your car's gas tank either, because of record-high oil prices. Government leaders have begun to address the issue of the sour economy, and you know things are bad when politicians actually notice them.

But the important question is: How will this affect the movie industry?

Hollywood studio executives are already starting to feel the pinch. When they dine on hundred-dollar steaks at exclusive Beverly Hills restaurants, they must tip the waitstaff out of their own pockets, as their expense accounts have been reduced. (There is often awkwardness as they realize the waitstaff consists of former New Line employees.) Instead of using $100 bills to light their cigars, moguls must use fifties. And instead of just screaming into a phone, "I'll pay Will Ferrell $20 million to put on a tutu and dance 'The Nutcracker' for 90 minutes!," now the best they can offer is $15 million.

The Hollywood Reporter ran a lengthy article last week talking about how the weak economy is actually affecting the movie business. The gist of it is that while producers used to be able to get investors to throw a few million dollars at a project, now those investors are being more cautious. Many investors are getting out of the film biz altogether. And when producers try to borrow money from their usual lending sources, they're finding that interest rates are higher than before -- if they can get the loans at all.

Basically, everyone is skittish. Films that would have breezed through the development stage a few years ago are being scrutinized more closely to see if they'll be cost-effective.

That's the part that worries me. If a studio has to decide between making a movie that's really good but might not be hugely profitable, and making a movie that's complete crap but will gross $200 domestic, I know which one they're going to choose. Unfortunately, the best way to make money in Hollywood is to underestimate the audience, reduce everything to its lowest common denominator, and release something bland, inoffensive, and lowbrow. Usually the studios can afford to throw in some smaller, higher-quality flicks, too, but those will be the first to go if there are cutbacks.

There's also the question of whether a seriously bad economy will reduce movie attendance. The good news is that it probably won't. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, movie attendance hit record highs. Movie tickets were cheaper than other forms of entertainment such as live theater productions, and frankly, there wasn't much else to do when you didn't have a job to go to all day. Movies were a form of escape, and the most popular films were glossy musicals about characters who didn't have money problems.

Granted, cinemas in the 1930s had less competition for your entertainment dollar than they do now, and they were a better bargain, too, what with double features, news reels, and cartoon shorts included in the ticket price. Nowadays all you get for your eight bucks is 15 minutes of trailers that you've already watched online. But still, movie tickets are a bargain compared to most concerts, plays, and sporting events. Even poor people can afford to go to movies -- great news for those of us who are about to be poor.

* * * * *

Eric D. Snider (website) might consider living out of his car, since it's bigger than his apartment.