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Reed: Studios have themselves to blame for box office failures

Chase Reed, Columnist

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My memories of home are inextricably tied to going out to the movies. Whenever my family would make the trek to my grandmother’s house — to stay over, celebrate or reunite with family — we’d drive by a wide, open field of drought-addled grass flanked by four 50-foot-tall screens: the lonely remains of the Valley Drive-In movie theater. According to my mother, I saw my very first movie there when I was only an infant, just before the theater closed down in 1999.

I can’t remember what played that day, nor the experience of watching a double feature from the backseat of our beat-up Ford Explorer, but I’m sure the spectacle dazzled me even as a baby. Infants are quite impressionable, after all — they absorb information they won’t understand until it unwittingly re-emerges much later to guide them on a path like myself, for example, to the Radio, Television and Film program at Northwestern.

But for most people, that magic has faded. Fewer people than ever are flocking to the movies; summer box office totals reached an 11-year low.

What I do remember about my childhood experience at the movies is slipping flimsy blue-and-red tinted 3-D glasses over my eyes at the beginning of the third Spy Kids movie — just a week before my fifth birthday — and marveling at the effects as they leapt out of the screen and into real life. Much later, I remember sneaking out of my dad’s trailer during weekend visits to catch midnight premieres of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” and “Super 8” — as a pre-teen among a sea of devoted cinephiles.

Those memories hold a special place in my heart. Yet now, as fewer people share those experiences, studio executives have placed the blame on everything from streaming services and review aggregators to audiences themselves for failing to fill seats. But the real blame lies in the studio system itself — specifically, its uber-capitalist methodology that produces overhyped, protracted films in a vain attempt to eke out as much money as possible.

Take “Blade Runner 2049,” for example. Made on a $150 million budget, the film only grossed $31.5 million in its opening weekend. Executives quickly cited a lack of a female audience as the reason for the film’s unexpected flop, but in reality, the writing was on the wall since its inception. Making a big-budget sequel to a cult-classic film was always going to be a big risk, regardless of critical success. Yet Hollywood has proven to consistently over-rely on poorly scripted film franchises (I’m looking at you, “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” and “Suicide Squad”) as a method of drawing crowds.

This year alone, I’ve seen a variety of films on the silver screen, from indies like the genre-busting creature-feature “Colossal” to big-budget blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” and “Baby Driver.” I’ve bought tickets to head-scratchers like Darren Aronofsky’s “Mother!” and crowd-pleasers like “The LEGO Batman Movie.” This summer, I even drove two and a half hours twice — once by myself, once with my grandfather — just to see Christopher Nolan’s “Dunkirk” in IMAX on 70 millimeter film.

Certainly, there’s an audience out there beyond myself eagerly waiting to see these films as they’re meant to be experienced — in a movie theater. Yet, rising ticket prices and an oversaturated market ultimately prevent many potential movie-goers from pulling out their wallets for the experience. Instead, they’ll wait for the film to come out on DVD or Netflix — seemingly more out of disinterest and frugality than the studio’s assumption of laziness.

Once movie studios finally move away from their focus on the bottom line and begin to tell nuanced stories with multi-generational appeal, they will begin to rebound. Until then, you’ll only find me haunting the local Cinemark on “five-dollar Tuesday.”

Chase Reed is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at chasereed2020@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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