Monday, August 25, 2008

why box office inflation is overrated

The recent backlash against The Dark Knight is centered on the question of inflation. While the movie is already the second highest-grossing movie of all time, detractors and other conscientious objectors respond that with inflation--the fact that tickets cost a lot more than they used to--The Dark Knight barely leaves a blimp on the all-time box office radar.

I agree to a point. And in fact that was my first reaction when it quickly became obvious that the new Batman movie was going to make some serious cash, maybe even challenging Titanic (though I was always skeptical of that, partly for reasons I explain below).

Its standard issue among film critics and scholars that--counting inflation--the biggest fish will always be Gone with the Wind, Jaws, Exorcist, Sound of Music, Star Wars, Godfather, and so forth. Even Titanic barely registers in that group of ticket-selling titans.

But here are some of the reasons I think considering inflation is overrated, and in fact think that Titanic and The Dark Knight's respective performances are every bit as remarkable as some of the above mentioned titles:

For one, the competition. Theatrical films today increasingly complete for attention from consumers with television, home video and new media. While films back when also vied with their own competing forms of entertainment, there's nothing then that's still not a factor today (print, radio, theatre, etc). The fact is, for audio-visual media, there have never been more choices than there are today.

People can be entertained just as easily (and often more cheaply) at home with TV and the internet, as well as their own collection of movies and shows on DVD. On that note, home video is the big elephant in the room--Is it any coincidence that a great deal of the all-time box office champs are from the 1970s (Exorcist, Star Wars, Godfather, Jaws)--ie, right before the emergence of the home video market in the 1980s?

For another, home video--which today is defined largely as various DVD formats--all but destroyed two key aspects of a film's possible long-term theatrical success--new business and repeat business. People who do not see a film right away, or whom only hear about it through word of mouth after the fact, can and often do wait to see the film on DVD. (Repeat business at the multiplex, for now, is gone, except for only the most fantatical--this is partly the reason why Titanic's success was so remarkably unparalleled.)

People who, for whatever reason, resist going to the theatres now have the option to wait and spend the money on home video. People who saw a film once or twice and love it to death, might well wait until the DVD release to purchase it and watch again. Movies in the past made money not because a lot of people went to go see it--it was because so many people went to see it again. And then again when the film was re-released, and re-released, in the pre- home video era. Movies didn't used to attract more repeat business because they were better, or because people liked them more--they made more money because people didn't have a choice if they wanted to see it again.

Personally, there are a lot of movies from just the last five years that I would have seen at least three, four, five, or even more, times had I not had the option to wait for the DVD and just spend the money on that. Why waste money and time going to the theatres again when you can wait a couple more months to have the movie available for your own convenience (and in the process you have not necessarily spent any more money in the process)?

Moreover, the dominance of the home video market today (along with the "big opening weekend or bust" mentality of theatrical distribution) depresses the time frame for theatrical releases. Part of the reason why Dark Knight's theatrical revenue will quickly fade is because everyone's already starting to turn their attention towards the DVD release date in time for the holidays. If Dark Knight held out until at least the Oscars next spring (hoping to cash in on nods), released it to theatres in February again, and then held out even longer to capitalize on the Oscar buzz (this is another reason Titanic endured), I believe the Batman film would break the record. But because Warner Bros. is no doubt extremely anxious to cash in on the home video market, and not lose out on Christmas shopping, Dark Knight's box-office window is remarkably small.

And I won't even go into the decreasingly novelty of the theatrical-going experience--although I will say that I think Dark Knight's extensive IMAX footage and promotion was no small matter in building the film's larger buzz as a theatrical experience.

In all, I find Dark Knight's and Titanic's box office every bit as impressive as any film every released. And I think the question of "box office inflation" confuses the discussion of "what was the most impressive box office performance," more than it clarifies it.