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We Lost It at the Movies

How Hollywood freaked out over vanishing audiences—who’ve now magically reappeared—and why teenage boys are a studio’s worst habit.

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You may have heard that recently, the entire audience for movies disappeared. Poof. You can imagine that this was quite a blow to movie-industry types. This mysterious disaster seemed to last an eternity but actually endured nine months. Still, it was the cruelest of all of the binge-and-purge cycles I’ve seen in Hollywood. This one had everyone believing it was really over, that we were technologically obsolete. Many mini-conferences were convened to explain the debacle, scores of meetings at studios tried to unpack the crisis, various reports broke it down to the moguls as hushed conversations with wives and business managers took place throughout the summer and fall. Well-planned lives seemed on the verge of imploding all over town. Young Turks were eyeing video games. Then, astonishingly, the movie audience reappeared. Why?

The crisis began with the unexpected failure of what was, in retrospect, a gamble at best for June: Cinderella Man, from the preternaturally successful team of Brian Grazer; his partner, the gifted Ron Howard; and Oscar-winning Russell Crowe. It seemed destined for greatness; their last entry, A Beautiful Mind, had won an Academy Award for Universal. And this one had perky Renée Zellweger. But no matter what they did—spending irrational amounts of money, even offering a money-back guarantee—no audience would show up. Perhaps the audience was too stupid to want meaningful movies this season, the studio wondered. Surely they should see the virtues of this film. Then panic set in. Was it marketing? The fact that Crowe had thrown a phone in a hotel clerk’s face? It never occurred to them that there might be a problem with the movie, which one young man described to me as “Seabiscuit with Russell Crowe playing the horse.”

Then other surefire entries started to fail, the kind that are supposed to open in summer, no problemo: July brought Stealth, Rob Cohen’s $135 million . . . what, exactly? Thriller? Action movie? Starring Jamie Foxx, Jessica Biel, and Josh Lucas, it opened to a measly $13 million. And October brought Doom literally, which had started off tracking like gangbusters. (The industry watches the “tracking”—the statistical prognostications based on surveys—the way politicians watch polls, with similar results.) Based on one of the most successful video games of all time, it would have to be a blockbuster, wouldn’t it? The tracking continued to build until the week of the movie’s debut, when it collapsed. If the kids didn’t come to Doom, starring The Rock, we could no longer call anything. Everyone had bet on video games—execs had been running off to Comic-Con, the annual comic-book convention in San Diego, like lemmings, buying comic characters, video games, and graphic novels—and now Doom, which ultimately did $28 million in domestic box office. This was beyond horrible. Word of mouth killed Doom before it even opened. This was news; bad news.

And so, come October, I found myself at a lovely if crushingly depressing lunch hosted by the cutting-edge upstart market-research company OTX, at the Peninsula, munching glumly on my mandarin-orange salad. They were here to explain what had gone so terribly wrong. We were seated at small round tables with marketing types from the studios (and many ex-marketers; they are the first to be fired when movies flop—i.e., it’s the marketing, dummy! Not the movie!) and assorted producers like me looking to figure out what was hot and what was not, and why. And the gist of what we heard was this: Young men were too busy to go to the movies anymore. They would rather play video games on Friday nights or be on the Internet playing video games with strangers or hooking up or pretending to be hooking up or playing video games with or without the person they had just hooked up with.

As for the baby-boomers—or the “upper-quadrant audience,” as we know them—the movie experience had so deteriorated (bad food, sound, seats, etc.) that they would rather wait for the DVD. They all now had fabulous home entertainment systems, which their teenagers appropriated when they finally felt like seeing the movie they had missed playing video games. This wisdom was imparted with the help of graphs and charts and statistics, which made my eyes twitch. Afterward, everybody trundled home, cashed in whatever movie stock they had, and repeated these verities to everyone they knew. The New York Times printed them, too, and it became fact: The movie audience was kaput.

There was a moment from September to December when everyone was stumped by what movies to make. We would sit at dinner and say, It can’t just be Saw III, can it? And then we’d weep into our martinis. One casting director said to me, “The studios will only make comedies, and those with only four people, two of whom were in Wedding Crashers!


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