Hollywood’s Annihilation: Why Declining Ticket Sales Turned Theaters Into Living Rooms

Michael McKean recently tweeted (and I’m truly sorry that we’re at the cultural moment where I’m quoting a tweet) “Sometimes people say a song made them cry when they mean a song let them cry.” Entertainment gives us an excuse to feel things in our day that don’t need to be directly related to our lives. We cry, we laugh, we get scared. It doesn’t matter how we get there so long as we can find an excuse for it. Communal opportunities for everyone to do this together give a reason for the historical popularity of concerts, plays, and movies as something different from the personal experience of reading a book or watching a TV show. Somewhere in McKean’s analysis is the idea that a group of people all being allowed to cry at the same thing and at the same time made the experience more profound.

While that sounds like it could be a universal, unchanging truth, movies in particular seem increasingly immune to the need for a communal experience. Ticket sales in 2017 hit a 25 year low and millenials in particular just don’t feel compelled to go to the movies. Talking with Variety, Mike Medavoy (producer of movies like Black Swan and Shutter Island) chalked this up to the fact that “millennials can play games or watch movies at home on a big screen, so repeating the same kind of content over and over [at the movie theater] doesn’t really make sense. If you don’t give people something that’s fresh and new, they’re not going to show up.” The concept of superhero fatigue comes up every couple of years and, though conventional wisdom does suggest that making the same superhero movie 4 times a year can’t sustain high profits forever, the non-superhero movies have not proved to be more successful.

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Is the audience problem, as Medavoy says, just a question of whether something is fresh and new or is it something to do with the blending of movies and TV into streaming content? Even books have started to move toward the TV model in search of higher profits and the cultural zeitgeist (though probably more-so the profits).

In 2014, weird fiction author Jeff Vandermeer released the Southern Reach trilogy--each volume following its predecessor by a few months in what was supposed to be a mirror to the way consumers experience television. While the distance between each of the three books was longer than the 7 seconds Netflix gives viewers, this was ostensibly the first bingeable book trilogy. Vandermeer spent 5 years working on the series so Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance could all be released this way in something of a gamble that paid off. The series sold well, and the first novel in particular, Annihilation, became a cultural landmark that year. Like a great pilot, it is a fascinating, unforgettable book that provides enough closure to be satisfying and enough questions to entice readers to progress in the series.

The Southern Reach trilogy has been described by Vandermeer as a kind of expanding lens, with each book providing unique perspectives and structures instead of simply continuing with the narrative thread where Annihilation leaves off. Speaking to Electric Literature, Vandermeer explained his methodology:

I was more interested in giving readers something different with each novel, and a different “trilogy” overall, too. So I did have some concerns about returning to Area X if I couldn’t offer something different, but it seemed to me that the perspective taken allowed for a return that was a departure from what had gone before . . . What I have to accept is that some readers will find too many answers and some readers too few. But that kind of comes with the territory in this case. Given the series is also exploring the idea of subjectivity and competing ideologies or narratives, that’s probably appropriate.

In this sense, though the model for the series was television, Vandermeer was not just trying to turn Lost into a book series. He had something more abstract and ambitious in mind for his series about Area X, a (mostly) inexplicable event in which a slowly expanding piece of land seems to be terraforming into something completely alien to our notions of ecology or human understanding. I found the series excellent and, though the subject matter is completely different, the only worthy successor in contemporary Lovecraftian horror to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves. It is notable that the series may not have had the impact it did if its publisher hadn’t decided that modern reading habits should more closely mirror the Netflix model of consumerism, something Danielewski also attempted, though without similar success.

A year after Vandermeer’s experiment, Danielewski released the first in a planned 27-part series, The Familiar. His plan was to release 2-3 volumes a year (which turned out to be 700-800 pages each [!] compared to Vandermeer’s 200-300) and segment the series into 5-volume “seasons.” Speaking to NPR, Danielewski expanded on his theory for how to incorporate the television model in novels:

I began to see that it was a much much larger work, and probably impossible to conceive had it not been for the sudden efflorescence of great television. Looking at the five seasons of The Wire or the wild speculations of Battlestar Galactica. Certainly Mad Men, certainly The Sopranos, certainly Breaking Bad. These visual novels that have come into our living rooms and bedrooms and they tell a story in much greater detail and with much greater patience. And I began to see that it also made sense from my point of view as a creator, in that House Of Leaves was very much about a film, Only Revolutions is very much about music, and this is about a television series. Just a longform investment in the future. And it is a book that requires, like a television series, an audience . . . If the readers don't turn out for it, if the ratings aren't high enough, this will not see a conclusion.

Three years later, 5 volumes into The Familiar, that is exactly what ended up happening. The series has been put on a vague extended hiatus. In other words, it’s been cancelled. Danielewski broke the news on Twitter that “for now the number of readers is not sufficient to justify the cost of continuing.” It’s unclear what exactly about the television model worked against Danielewski while Vandermeer’s career went mainstream after attempting it. Certainly one of the most interesting elements of both stories is that successful authors known for being abstract and niche have turned to modeling their writing on television.

Television is a medium which increasingly gives creators the chance to be messy, difficult, and intelligent. And, in a few of those instances, audiences have shown up for it in a way that has not been the case for many novels or films. In fact, Vandermeer seems to have created a perfect pitch for the next big Netflix show--a supernatural-ish/sci-fi-ish/horror-ish mystery trilogy designed for binging. Audiences got their chance to see a filmed adaptation of Annihilation earlier this year, perhaps counterintuitively not as a bingeable series; it was a fairly expensive movie, and it flopped.

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Alex Garland, hot off of the success of his directorial debut, Ex Machina, signed on to write and direct the film adaptation of Annihilation. Mega-producer Scott Rudin had optioned all three novels with a vision toward building some kind of unique trilogy. The question that should be asked, however, is why make movies instead of a TV show? Movies are not made at a pace that can easily produce a bingeable result, so one of the unique elements that made the novels click for readers was inherently undoable in this format, whereas bringing the series to a premium cable channel may have been a more natural fit.

Garland is known for making difficult, intelligent films that make a profit because they are relatively cheaply produced. Annihilation is a big budget concept and seemingly from its inception would be almost impossible to make a profit from in the current film market. The truth is that, in 2018, movies like Annihilation have a low box office ceiling. In a profile with the Wall Street Journal, Garland acknowledged as much when working with his VFX supervisor on small details of a complicated shot, saying “virtually no one will see this on a big screen, they’ll watch it on their iPhones, does it f---ing matter?” His cynicism was justified. Paramount sold off international distribution rights for the film to Netflix, realizing that, no matter how good the reviews may be, audiences just won’t turn out for a project like this.

This breeds a cynicism toward the film industry in general. Why shouldn’t something different get a chance from audiences who have no problem seeing every Marvel movie that comes out in a year? Seemingly, the idea of something difficult or abstract is not so off-putting to audiences who followed Lost or watch Westworld every week. Annihilation was not a perfect film, nor was it a masterpiece, but surely it was not harder to sell than the latest Netflix original series. I wonder if the problem is the content or if the problem is the distribution.

“I’ll wait until it’s on Netflix” used to be a kind of snotty way to say a movie looked okay-ish but not really worth your full attention. Theaters ostensibly command your full attention and request that you not be talking, browsing the internet, texting, doing chores, cooking, etc. They don’t do a particularly successful job retaining the attention of audiences outside of chains like Alamo Drafthouse, which require it, and, while I’m always going to be annoyed by that person with their brightness setting all the way up scrolling through Twitter for a half hour at the theater, it’s time to confront the fact that this is the way people watch movies now. Movies are not sacred blessings that have earned your undivided attention. They’re TV but it costs more per hour. Audiences are annoyed when the movie they want to see isn’t on Netflix now and they have to add the arbitrary step of going to the theater to watch it.

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The only distinction in 2018 between a movie and a streaming event is that there aren’t 10 more hours of content following the first part. A movie is a 90 minute episode of, well, just that. Content. It’s all just easily watchable content; sometimes there are years of follow-ups and sometimes it stands alone. I’m not sure audiences really care one way or another so long as they don’t have to inconvenience themselves to watch it. Here is the crux of the issue, whether it’s a unique movie like Annihilation or a Marvel superhero one; to fans of TV/movies, the theatrical distribution method has become an unnecessary inconvenience along the way to streaming.

As a filmmaker who has made four features that played theatrically, I’ve been holding onto the dream of a meaningful cinema experience. This perfect world includes this great communal element where we all can come together and feel something together like McKean’s tweet posited. I want to go to the theater and be given the excuse to emote with everyone else, but the truth is that, more often than not, the other people around me are not having a profound experience. They’re bored. They’re on their phones, they’re chewing loudly, they’re rustling. If the movie lets me cry, how do I figure out how to get the audience to do the same? Are people just awful and there is no solution other than preferring to watch from the relatively unpopulated utopia of a living room?

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Movie theaters have caught onto the idea that living rooms (if not bedrooms) are the preferred viewing locations, though that’s not especially helpful information for an industry that is by definition not in your living room. The film industry, of course, has no issue working toward producing content that is intended for streaming. Even filmmakers like Noah Baumbach and Tamara Jenkins have a much higher likelihood of getting their work produced by Netflix than for the meager return that art-house theaters can provide. Audiences may want interesting content, but they still don’t want to have to go to the theater to watch it, no matter how much theaters try to turn themselves into living rooms or restaurants.

The theater model seems at this point to be unsalvageable in the long term. Content is not dictated by theatrical expectations of a single viewing experience. Audiences want the ease of clicking a button to watch anything because it’s simple. It doesn’t require a commitment of attention, time, or emotion. Perhaps audiences no longer want the excuse to be allowed to have an emotional reaction. Maybe they don’t want to cry. At the very least, they don’t want to share the moment with you anymore.


-Tom Knoblauch

The Medium Roast - Imposing Utopia

 
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Throughout cinema’s history, an eclectic group of films have been written off as propaganda and, sure, sometimes people do make propaganda. What constitutes this particular kind of political agenda, usually with an implication of maliciousness toward its political opponent’s ideology, is not bound by any sort of fixed criteria. Was The Da Vinci Code a plot by liberal Hollywood to take down the Catholic Church or was it just a semi-successful novelist capitalizing on the history of conspiracy theories by making an easily marketable thriller that landed Ron Howard and Tom Hanks for its adaptation? Is The Dark Knight a conservative manifesto justifying The Patriot Act to ensure that order beats out chaos in the end or is it just a cool crime movie about a guy in a dumb costume?

There is no shortage of thinkpieces alleging one or the other, to varying degrees of credibility, all essentially coming down to whether the worldview of its author equates to the worldview of the piece of fiction, and then whether expressing a worldview or set of values is the same as shoving propaganda down anyone’s throat. It’s unclear in 2018 that expressing an opinion of any kind can be divorced from the perception of propaganda.

The kinds of movies that tend to rile up audiences for propaganda thinkpieces range from the intentionally controversial to the obviously stupid. Imagine getting riled up every time Michael Bay puts out a new movie (as director or producer), as if the fact that he makes money for Paramount is a legitimate threat to a political ideology. The Transformers franchise has no clear conscience regarding the environmental impact of the depicted vehicles. In fact, it seems to think gas guzzlers are cool. Is that enough? How do I differentiate what is stupid and popular from a threat to my way of life? And do I actually have to watch those movies to have a radical opinion on their danger? Finding justifications for arbitrary outrage sure seems like a lot of work.

Bay’s latest opus (as a producer) is director John Krasinski's sci-fi thriller A Quiet Place, which follows a family in the post-apocalyptic silent world where absurdly efficient alien creatures eat anyone for making a detectable noise. The few surviving humans have adapted to be as silent as possible, though, seeing as the movie still needs a narrative, things eventually deteriorate to the point of a noisy struggle for survival. While weapons seem mostly useless in this context, the family has guns around the house--presumably as much for the potential to use against the aliens as for protection against other humans. Something almost every post-apocalyptic narrative has emphasized to audiences is that, despite whatever additional external crisis is going on, sometimes people aren’t nice to each other when resources grow scarce.

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So, the family has means of protection, including some clever decoys to distract the creatures, and Krasinski’s character fumbles his way into inventing a way to make the creatures vulnerable enough that a gunshot can do some real damage. I won’t spoil the movie further, other than to say that this is not a movie where guns are emphasized, glorified, or fetishized. They’re useful, as one might expect them to be when the structures of society break down. After all, the police aren’t going to come help because they’d get eaten the moment they start their cruiser. So how exactly this context can be construed as propagandic, as Nicholas Barber alleges in his 1843 Magazine article, “Hollywood Needs to Fix Its Gun Problem,” proves more annoying than baffling.

Barber confesses his admiration of A Quiet Place with a sense of guilt. He acknowledges that the movie will likely be one of his favorites of 2018, though, regrettably, he suspects “it could be on the NRA’s list as well.” Perhaps this is the future of actively liberal criticism--a new kind of genre of “Gee, I feel bad about having fun watching this problematic movie” reviews. The new Ebert and Siskel could give every movie a thumbs-sideways and run through a list of possible misinterpretations before sheepishly offering a mild opinion on the quality.

A Quiet Place, according to Barber, along with “nearly every American film involving weaponry[,] might as well be an NRA infomercial. On the big screen, guns rarely kill innocent bystanders, they don’t go off by accident, and they aren’t used to slaughter children in classrooms.” His article similarly skewers Death Wish, for which his criticisms are exponentially more relevant. After all, Death Wish takes place in the same basic version of reality in which Barber finds himself both anti-NRA and anti-gun while also being a story about a man using violent methods to achieve his goals. Okay, fair enough.

But what does the current context about NRA culture have to do with a sci-fi thriller set in a completely different world context? Notice, for example, the NRA, including what appears to be the vast majority of its members, did not find any way to use their guns to stop the violent alien invasion. Guns, on their own, prove to be more of a liability than asset in the noiseless world. Barber holds against A Quiet Place the fact that it plays into “fantasies of Second Amendment obsessives that a private citizen could fend off the US Army” by a moment in its third act in which “gun-toting farmers fare better against the aliens than the entire American war machine.” Do they? I’m not so sure. He leaves out the detail that the only way these farmers fared better than the military is through an accidental invention of nonviolent technology which happens to weaken the defense level of the aliens. I’m curious, given the internal logic of this story, what Barber would suggest as an alternative means of killing this creature.

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Paramount

A friend pointed out to me that the less problematic resolution to an alien invasion has, in fact, been done before; M. Night Shyamalan’s alien invaders could be killed by nothing more than a glass of water and a baseball bat. Does that make Signs left-wing propaganda because they should have used guns? Does its protagonist’s faith journey make it right-wing propaganda? Similarly, a person at the screening concluded that we had just sat through a serious remake of Mars Attacks. Perhaps Tim Burton should be lauded for his more liberal solution to the alien problem. Surely these farmers had some country music they could have played as well. If we look hard enough, we can pretend Mars Attacks is a political movie.

The fact that Krasinski previously starred in Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is enough for Barber to conclude that the actor/writer/director “is obviously happy to be in films which push an anti-Democratic Party agenda.” I’d say that’s a bit of a reach, but certainly it’s nice to pretend that people only work on projects that align with their party affiliations. The paycheck and Krasinski’s friendship with Bay had no part in the decision? The obsession with agenda here makes me wonder why anyone would think A Quiet Place cares whatsoever about the Democratic Party. Must the logic of a fictional story in a fictional version of history be an agenda by necessity? To view the film industry this way is frustratingly simplistic and more propagandic than most movies.

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Paramount

There are movies guided creatively by political agendas just as there are movies made as an expression of an artistic goal. Most movies you and I have heard of, however, are made because some guy in a nice suit leaned back and thought, “Yeah, this will probably make money.” The production, which may or may not have started with some kind of artistic ideal, then goes through the rigorous process of casting stars who meet a threshold of previous success, gauging international sellability, restricting content to get the desired rating, finding the cheapest possible way to film the movie, making sure it isn’t too unique and off-putting to the masses, etc. The biggest misconception about the film industry is that everybody gets to make the movie they wanted to make. It happens a few times a year, though probably still with some concessions. Even if you set out desperate to make a piece of political propaganda, three years later when it comes out you’ve probably ultimately made something stupid and soulless because that appeals to a wider audience.

Simply creating a context where the family’s possession of a gun is useful is enough for Barber to conclude it has an “unambiguous pro-gun message,” something that makes him regret how fun A Quiet Place is. Unambiguous! He makes it sound like the movie was reverse engineered from an NRA commercial into a horror movie. Curious if there was any evidence of intention, I looked to a few interviews with the film’s original writers, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck. Speaking with Indiewire, they described the genesis of the film:

"The origins of A Quiet Place date back to our college years, as we became obsessed with the silent cinema of Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati. These filmmakers were masters of visual storytelling, needing not one line of dialogue to communicate character, emotion, or intent. Cinema had never felt so pure . . . We began discussing low-budget ideas; something that, worst case scenario, could be shot back in Iowa for $50,000. At the same time, we looked at the careers of our heroes — at the top of which is M. Night Shyamalan. What we loved about Shyamalan’s films is that they operate on many levels, layering catchy high-concepts with beautiful character nuance. That’s when we realized: A Quiet Place wasn’t just a fun concept. It’s a metaphor for the breakdown of family communication."

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Paramount

As an audience, we can choose to take Woods and Beck at their word or not. They wanted to make something stripped down, simple, and isolated. They wanted it to be Iowa-set. It sounds like they may have been directly thinking of how they could capture the feeling of something similar to Signs. So where do the guns come in? Why would they choose to make a movie about people living on a farm in Iowa and choose to depict this family as gun owners? I wonder if it could have perhaps been because it seemed like a reasonable plot element--isolation goes along with means of protection. This is the point where story logic doesn’t need to clash with political agendas. Nevertheless, outrage persists.

Do you really want to watch movies that are tailored made to the utopian ideals of either mainstream political parties? Would it improve any domestic problems if our fictional universes adhered to the policies we think are appropriate for our contemporary context? Even Atlas Shrugged barely gets to the point of a conservative utopia, focusing instead on the dystopic argument for one. Imagine for a moment how it would go if every spec script/pitch was censored to disregard any potentially problematic plot element regardless of internal story logic. It provokes for me the following questions: Do you think these progressively utopic, conflict-free movies would even age well? How do the most progressive moves of the past century stack up now? Do they pass the Bechdel Test? Isn’t progress by definition a changing set of expectations? Also, wouldn’t they just be just as bad as the movies that have opinions in them? Imposing utopia does not improve entertainment.

There is an insulting element to the propaganda argument wherein those outraged seem to think that viewers don’t have the ability to disagree with an ideology presented to them. If you really think your personal agenda can’t stand up to a stupid action movie, either your ideology is in serious trouble or you have an incredibly condescending view of your peers. Political battle lines arbitrarily drawn on any movie miss the point both of the film industry and political outrage.

Just as The Da Vinci Code didn’t topple Catholicism, A Quiet Place is not going to be the deciding factor in future gun legislation. Maybe film critics could work on their outrage problem instead.

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-Tom Knoblauch

A Letter to Our Supporters

As this company enters a new era with the launch of Aksarben Creative, we look forward, to the future, hopeful of what we can accomplish.

We wouldn't have a future without our past.

In February of 2013 Tom Knoblauch and I began an independent film production company with the intent to produce at least one full length film. As of this post we've produced three, with a fourth in the editing stages and a fifth in development.

I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who has supported us over the years. Without your help and support we would not be where we are today. Tom and I are forever grateful to the cast and crew that helped us create our first film. They took a chance on us and sacrificed time to help us achieve something. Thank you to every cast and crew member we've had the pleasure of working with. Thank you to our friends and family for supporting our efforts. We are truly grateful for the support we've received.

We've decided it's time to go in a new direction. During the past four years we've discovered a passion for creativity, beyond just filmmaking. Our company won't focus simply on filmmaking, but also on podcasting, music, photography, writing, branding, digital art, and much more. We want to explore every creative field and collaborate with every creative person. We want to establish a local business that promotes creative endeavours and contributes to the community.

I'm hopeful for your support as we move forward. I'm excited for the future. I'm proud to introduce Aksarben Creative.

- Ben Matukewicz, President / Aksarben Creative