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