State of the movie biz

Thursday, March 5, 2009

@SL_body_copy_ragged:The good news: A few weeks ago I took my usual seat in the theater, and I became suddenly all warm and fuzzy with a deja vu moment from my childhood.

The lights went down, the projector beam lit up the large screen, and for the next couple of hours I traveled to some new world. I've been doing it since I could walk, and though TV gets the job done, and DVD home theater systems are almost too cool, sitting in a darkened theater with great expectations will never be beat.

And maybe the current jump in box office results during this bad economy is good evidence. It's a relatively inexpensive evening out. It can be a social event. It can involve the whole family or a young couple in love. It's always entertaining, and sometimes it might just change your life. And though some out there are just sticks in the mud, the average big time movie doesn't hurt anyone or anything.

The bad news: Great box office aside, the movie industry has found itself in a strange Catch-22. It hasn't seen this type of box office revenue in a long time and, as you would expect, is racing to get films into production and distributed. But to capitalize on this great box office they need fresh funds to get new films made and distributed. "But shouldn't the box office receipts pay for new films?" you ask. It's a great question with a strange answer.

Only one or two studios partially fund their own films these days. The vast majority of films are financed the same way any ordinary business is financed. Investors (business people, wealthy people, hedge funds) give money to the filmmakers to make the film, who then contract with a distributor to get the film out into the theaters. When revenue comes back in, everyone is paid off and the investors take their profits.

You can see how a wealthy individual who has just lost half his wealth in this bad economy is wanting to hold on to that film's profit. Another Catch-22?

More worrisome, is that I've read that many of the sub par films made in the last year (read: completed and money already spent) that were destined for a straight-to-DVD release might be showing up at your local theater. Bad films, of course, will have a souring effect on the box office, which in turn will really hurt investors. What a strange time to be in the movie business.

Finally, I keep up with a blog by one of my favorite cinematographers. He usually has his whole year scheduled by March and fights the urge to schedule smaller shoots during his vacations. For 2009 he has one film tentatively scheduled for late summer. To illustrate the current state of affairs, he recently wrote about an interview he had for a funded and in-production major film. After what he felt was a productive conversation, he left the office and found in the waiting room two famous cinematographers waiting their turn. One was an Oscar winner.

Sadly it seems this global economy will require the film industry to clear its decks along with every other industry. What a missed opportunity.

Steve E. Turner is a freelance movie reviewer and filmmaker. Read more of his reviews at

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