Return of the Death Spiral

Part 2 of Edward Jay Epstein’s “Hollywood Death Spiral” appeared today in Slate (check out part one plus my response). The basics of Epstein’s original argument: the “window” between the theatrical relase date and DVD release date is shrinking, allowing consumers to wait for the DVD release rather than seeing a film on the big screen. With less people seeing the movies in theaters, the window shrinks even further (and so on). I’m a little less convinced by Epstein’s argument than I was last week. While home theater technologies and industry distribution practices have likely affected movie attendance, this cause-effect relationship seems far too easy. Tim’s comment about “displays of consumption” (scroll down to comments) should certainly be part of the equation, but I wonder if there aren’t other factors (increased emphasis on family life? increasing cynicism towards movies as media events?) that are driving people to stay at home. In short, it’s not just about a new technology or even a new economic practice, although those factors are certainly relevant.

But I’m willing to take Epstein’s claims at face value, at least for the duration of one blog entry. In Part Two, Epstein considers the solutions for such a problem, noting that some studio executives have even considered eliminating the window altogether, releasing films to theaters, video stores, and pay-per-view on the same day. Like Epstein, I think theater chains, whose profits almost entirely derive from concession sales, might have something to say about that. I do think that theaters could make themselves more attractive by offering better and more varied concessions (Landmark’s coffee has become part of my theater-going routine, and their desserts are generally tasty, too). Other potential solutions include studios taking a larger chunk of the box office take in exchange for keeping the DVD window at five months, but that’s probably not going to make theaters very happy.

But as Green Cine Daily points out, Epstein doesn’t really offer a solution (maybe he wants us to buy his book). Ultimately, Epstein suggests that studios will likley take a wait-and-see approach, and that’s pretty much his best guess, too. I’m not really in a position to predict what’s going to happen, so maybe I’m copping out, too (of course I never promised a solution). Given the degree to which the Hollywood hype machine has been saturating TV, the Internet, billboards, and other media spaces, I’m wondering if studios might find themselves redefining how movie releases are “media events.” I’ve seen so many ads for a certain movie based on a certain 1970s TV show that I actually believed the movie had already been released several weeks ago. I also feel like I’ve already seen the movie, even if I don’t have the foggiest notion of its plot (other than lots of stunt driving). And I had a similar experience when I watched Wedding Crashers last week. There was not a single moment in the film that the previews had not already anticipated for me. In other words, I wonder if one of the problems of the studio system is that they’ve oversaturated our airwaves with ads for the big summer movies and that by the time the movies get to theater, watching the film itself feels like an exercise.

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