A silver lining in Hollywood's lackluster year

Ticket sales continue to climb, even as critics decry ascent of the commercial over the creative.

Trumping movie-industry oddsmakers and nose-holding critics, Hollywood eked out another record year at the box office in 2000: $7.7 billion (up 2 percent over 1999).

But the good news masks a host of creative and economic concerns, as moviemakers make their way into a new millennium loaded with at-home entertainment options.

In addition to being criticized by Washington officials for marketing R-rated movies to youngsters, Hollywood faces possible actors and writers strikes this spring. Despite higher box-office returns, actual attendance is down, while ticket prices are up, putting several leading theater chains in - or close to - bankruptcy.

There are also new accounting rules that kick in this year, which will disallow a longtime practice of amortizing major debt over several years. The new rules will force studios to incur upfront operating costs for soaring advertising and marketing costs, which could stifle funding.

How the coming months play out will dramatically affect the quality and quantity of offerings at cineplexes and neighborhood movie houses for years, analysts say. The growing gap between commercial and creative sides of Tinseltown will decide how many smaller-budget movies, such as "Erin Brockovich," survive among special-effects epics from "M:I2" to "Grinch."

"There is a growing dilemma within the Hollywood moviemaking community on how best to appeal to those who just want to be entertained versus those who want substantial intellectual stimulation," says Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source Inc., which tracks movie-industry trends. He and others say a growing audience of youths - about 65 percent of the moviegoing audience is ages 13 to 28 - is dictating a "dumbing down" of movie fare.

"The economics of filmmaking increasingly is forcing a creative conservatism by investors," says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a professor of film studies at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Noting that the average film's minimal advertising budget alone is $24.2 million, Mr. Dixon says, "Investors want to get behind only the sure projects. That means forgoing the experimental, the innovative, the creative and subtle for something obvious like 'Charlie's Angels.' "

For many analysts, the movies of 2000 spotlight where the trend is headed. Critics call it one of the worst years in a decade and a half, yet audiences still managed enough ticket purchases to surpass four years of record-breaking revenue.

"As far as entertainment value, the year 2000 was the worst for movies since the beginning of feature films in 1912," says Chris Lanier, owner of Motion Picture Intelligencer, a firm with a successful record of predicting box-office returns of films. "That quotient has been dropping steadily for several years."

Although critics lament a year in which very few movies stand out creatively, they admit the crowds still gorged on blockbusters like "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Gladiator" like so much popcorn. The former led the year with a $235 million take, while the latter was third with $186 million.

"In the months just before Oscars,... everyone is usually jumping up and down about their favorite movie for Best Picture," says Tim Shary, assistant professor of screen studies at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. "This year, most are having a hard time figuring out what's good enough to make the list."

But many analysts say that observers like Mr. Shary, as well as critics for major newspapers and magazines, are out of touch with the mainstream of American moviegoers. Their conventional, negative assessment of this year's fare is irrelevant, they say.

"Critics represent an intellectual elite in America that has never been in touch with most moviegoers' tastes," says Douglas Gomery, a professor in the economics of cinema at the University of Maryland in Ocean Park. "Movie studios know this and plow right ahead with what they know the bulk of Americans want."

He says the development of separate divisions within movie studios is evidence of a healthy trend of diversity. "I see movies as getting better, not worse," he says. He points out that Disney created Miramax Films for such envelope-pushing projects as "Pulp Fiction," and Sony developed Sony Pictures Classics for art-house and intellectual movies. "They are trying to reach beyond the bubble-gum masses."

Others say movies have opted for big-screen extravaganzas because that is what they do best. In recent years, they say, television has taken over the role of providing intelligent drama in series like "West Wing," "The Sopranos," "Ally McBeal," and others.

"Movie audiences are younger people, who just don't yet have the life experience to want sophisticated story lines," says Robert Thompson, a social critic at the University of Syracuse in New York.

But the growth of at-home options such as cable, home video, megasatellite channels, and now digital video discs (DVDs), is chipping away at moviegoing, if more slowly than many predicted a decade ago. On the other hand, these options can offer a second chance for experimental movies that don't do that well in their first runs at theaters.

"Because of the enormous costs of promoting and launching new movies, anything that is faintly problematic from an artistic point of view at mainstream theaters goes quickly to the movie channels," says Dixon. "So ... the more arty, innovative films are being made; they just aren't being shown as widely by distributors."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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