There's trouble in Hollywood.
Ticket revenues and admissions are down versus last year. Heading into the July 8-10 weekend, ticket sales lagged for 19 straight weekends.
I was ready to do my part to identify the problem and take part in a rescue. On Saturday, I sprang into action, arriving at the local megaplex not to see one movie, not even a double feature. Over nearly nine hours, fueled by soda, water, candy, Nathan's cheese fries, and a capachillo topped off with whip cream, I saw a triple feature in comfortable stadium seating.
First, it was director Steven Spielberg's intense and emotional "War of the Worlds," with marvelous special effects. The impact of 9/11 was unmistakable. As aliens attacked, for example, a little girl at one point cries out, "Is it the terrorists?" There were walls with pictures, with people hoping someone had seen their missing loved ones. Spielberg also salutes the military, as U.S. soldiers in the background throughout much of the film are courageous, professional and determined.
Next came "Batman Begins," which turned out to be the finest film rendition of the Dark Knight. The tale of how Bruce Wayne becomes Batman is compelling, while the movie also offers a clear view of justice, a well-balanced mix of action and humor, a cool batmobile (more like a bat tank) and a suitably shadowy batcave.
These two films were expected to do well, and have done so. Through the July 8-10 weekend, "War of the Worlds" grossed more than $165 million and "Batman Begins" topped $172 million.
More unexpected, at least to the critics, was the big $56-million weekend opening for the "Fantastic Four." This story of how Marvel's superhero team of Mr. Fantastic, the Invisible Girl, The Thing and the Human Torch get their superpowers, squabble among themselves, and battle Dr. Doom, helped to break Hollywood's weekend losing streak.
So, why did the "Fantastic Four" fight off critics and cheer audiences? It is not a deep, meaningful story, but it's darn fun. There's adventure, a little romance, and humor. One-liners from Chris Evans' Johnny Storm/Human Torch steal the show.
Until the "Fantastic Four" on Saturday night, I had seen three excellent, but often dark movies since the summer movie season began "Star Wars: Episode Three Revenge of the Sith" in May, and then "War of the Worlds" annd "Batman Begins." The "Fantastic Four" provided a high-energy, amusing break.
While each of these films has raked in big bucks, their ratings signal the longer term problem in the movie biz. That was spelled out in a May report by Sridhar Sundaram and H. James Williams, business professors at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, for The Dove Foundation. The study examined movie profitability according to how films were rated.
The findings reveal a dysfunctional business. The report noted that from 1989 to 2003, the movie industry made almost 12 times more R-rated films than G-rated, while the average G-rated movie produced 11 times greater profit than the average R-rated film. The average profit per PG-rated movie was more than four times higher than R-rated movies and 20 percent higher than PG-13.
For good measure, the study highlighted the average rate of return on investment for movies between 2000 and 2003. G-rated films averaged 95 percent, PG-rated 73 percent, PG-13-rated 44 percent, and R-rated 29 percent.
The American public seems to be sending a signal here. They generally favor films that the family can enjoy. It's pretty straightforward really. The more R-rated and PG-13-rated films, the more limited the audience and the opportunity to make profit.
While "Revenge of the Sith," "War of the Worlds," "Batman Begins" and "Fantastic Four" have done quite well, with some marginal editing here and there, those PG-13 films could have been rated PG with no loss whatsoever in the quality of the storytelling or artistry. As a result, their box office numbers would have been even better.
Consider that theater admissions registered 1.5 billion in 2004. That sounds impressive. But attendance topped 2 billion in 1960, for example. So, while the U.S. population grew by 63 percent, movie attendance fell by 40 percent. Sure, there's more competition for the entertainment dollar today, but films also were less sexually explicit, less violent, and less perverse 45 years ago.
Why does Hollywood face trouble? While the talents and skills exist to make high-quality G-rated and PG-rated movies, the vision, artistic impulse and business sense to produce more of these films seem in short supply.
Hollywood can always use more superheroes, but it also needs some business people who can better understand their audience and the bottom line. It would be nice to be able to take the kids on the next marathon triple feature.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.