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LITTLE WHIRLING PICTURE TAPES
by Harlan Kennedy
Where are the movie queues of yester-year? Are the hearts and minds of film fans being taken over by alien machines? Is it true that strange black monoliths called VCRs are spreading their spores across the world?
Panic time is never a good reason for rational thinking. And since the movie world has been panicking ever since the fifties, when the graph of filmgoing took a dip that has continued ever since, it's no wonder that good sense has been in short supply for over 30 years. Back then everyone thought that television was the villain, and Hollywood's boldest brains countered the small-screen threat with a bounty of ever wider screens and ever more Brobdingnagian showmanship: Cinemascope, Cinerama, Circlorama, 3D & Co.
But this going-for-broke giantism didn't check the slide. Three decades later we can reflect that maybe TV wasn't the main culprit after all. And today's newly nominated enemies of cinema – cable, video, satellite – may not be the main reason for emptying movie houses in the eighties.
Britain is the most interesting test country in the world today, since it's here that videocassette recorders have invaded homes to a greater degree than in any other Western industrialized country. There are 8 to 9 million VCRs in circulation in the U.K., representing 38 percent of the TV owning population. (Compare the States, whose 20 million VCRs in use represent 20 percent of TV owning homes.) Britain has been video-mad for years now, and there are probably two main reasons. 1. British TV with its high program-quality spread across four channels (as opposed to the U.S.A.'s abysmal program quality spread across dozens) encourages "time-switching;' the habit of recording a program you want to see that's on when you're out or when you're watching another channel. 2. The rental-VCR business that has gown up in Britain (and hasn't in the States) means users don't have to lay out a walloping three-figure sum to buy the machinery; they can pay about £20 a month. This guarantees provision not just of the machinery but also of service and maintenance. It also allows users to swap one machine for another if they want to change size, sophistication, or format. They can exchange the Betamax VCR, with its shrinking share of the market, for the more popular VHS.
Pundits with a tendency to put two and two together and assume, overtrustingly, that they equal four argue that the British video boom must be a major reason for the continuing slump at the British box office. It's a tempting conclusion, as one plummeting graph line (cinema attendance) coincides with another soaring one (video usage). But David Docherty of the Broadcasting Research Unit,* who is currently compiling a statistical survey, "The Entertainment Film in British Life," thinks it's a shaky half-truth at best-like the half-truth that it was television that first sent cinema audiences nosediving back in the 1950s.
DOCHERTY: The high point of filmgoing in Britain was in 1946, when 1.63 billion tickets were bought at the cinema. After that, just as in the United States, attendance started to fall. And it fell steadily for ten years before TV even came onto the scene as a mass-circulation competitor. In fact, the decline slowed temporarily when commercial television was introduced. So it's quite false to link the declining habit of filmgoing with the rise of TV In Britain it has had much more to do with population movement. After the war, cinemas stayed in decaying town centers when the C2 unskilled working class, who were always the biggest audience, moved out. The cinemas didn't follow them into the suburbs, as they did in America. And even most new towns were built without cinemas. So it's clear that, with or without television, filmgoing would have peaked in the mid-forties. Indeed, we find there's a more or less smooth statistical rise and fall on either side of 1946 – with 907 million attendances in 1935, eleven years before, and 915 million in 1957, eleven years later.
KENNEDY: But last year movie attendance hit an all-time low of 53 million, which means that since the high point of 1946 attendances have fallen by 97 percent. Television may not be the main factor, but it's surely an important one. In this decade hasn't video helped the slump?
DOCHERTY: That would be true if there were an accelerated decline in filmgoing since 1980, when home video first became a factor. But what we find is that the downward trend of the fifties, sixties, and seventies continues steadily into the eighties at least up until this year. And we've also found that VCR owners are not less frequent filmgoers than other sections of the population. The main video owners are in the 25-35 age range, who as a group are more frequent cinemagoers than the 45-plus age group. Among the 45-and-overs there is less interest in both cinema and video, and a higher satisfaction with network TV. Among film enthusiasts we've also found – with a movie like ET, for instance – that viewing the movie on video first, in a pirated version, doesn't stop them going to see it in a cinema.
KENNEDY: Nonetheless, as of 1985, the video market is on the up and up and the cinema has plummeted.
DOCHERTY: Well, in fact, it's likely that film audiences will rise from 53 million to just over 60 million. That's mainly thanks to U.S. blockbusters like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Beverly Hills Cop. But there's a good chance that the cinemas could now hold at 60 million or over and that we're already past the worst. There's also evidence that the VCR market is approaching saturation point. In 1984 sales of VCRs in Britain, for instance, were 1.5 million, which is down from 2.2 million in 1983, and 1985 has slowed still further. So both markets, video and cinema, may now be leveling off. The most bullish video market in fact is the United States, where the prediction is that by 1990 the 20 million VCR owners will have risen to 68 million – 75 percent of the TV-owning population.
There are signs, too, that the video software boom is leveling off in Britain. The revenue from prerecorded tapes in 1984 was £270 million (£235 million rented, £35 million sold), a 35 percent increase over 1983's £200 million (£190 million rented, £10 million sold). But predictions for 1985 suggest £300 million revenue, merely an 11-percent upswing with the "sold" figure static at £35 million.
In the fight to keep a slice of the market, shops and rental companies offering prerecorded tapes in Britain wage a furious price war, and in the last year or two they have cut their profit margins to the bone, with rentals as low as £1 for a night or £2 for a weekend. The cost-cutting seems the only way for a night tape market to compete with the habit in many households of copying feature films straight off the networks. But it still hasn't stopped the number of specialist homevid dealers in Britain sliding from 8,000 in 1983 to 4,500.
Also offering a form of competition not welcomed by specialist dealers is the racking industry. Racking companies sell 50-title "racks" of prerecorded videos (mostly feature films) to non-specialist outlets like gas stations, drugstores, and newspaper shops. The Video Trade Association has condemned the practice but, in a free market, is powerless to do more.
All this suggests that today's popular image of film as a dying art is misleading. The viewing habit has merely diversified into new outlets and delivery systems, with the VCR-equipped den taking over from cinema as today's main venue for movie-goggling. The indelible popcorn or ice-cream stains are more likely to be on your own carpet, and you can neck in the back row of your living room. David Docherty again: "We calculate that, in Britain, 8 percent of prerecorded video is rented each week by each VCR owner, which adds up to 345 million rentals per annum. Multiply that by three – our estimate of the average number of people watching each video – and you have a figure of 1.035 billion, which is virtually the same as the number of moviegoers at the height of the cinema's popularity 39 years ago. Add to that the number of people who watch feature films on network TV – and many record them and watch them more than once – and you're well up to 3 billion. By then you realize how ridiculous it is to judge enthusiasm for movies in Britain today merely by the figure – less than 2 percent of that total – who troop out to the cinemas to see feature films."
Against this background of domestic movie bliss, what chance does British Film Year have? BFY is a frantic flag-waving effort to get people out of their homes and into cinemas, thereby pouring fresh money into the ailing British exhibition circuits and even into British filmmaking. "Cinema: the best place to see a film," cries the BFY slogan, in the teeth of clear evidence that most people think the opposite. In 1978, when a cross section of the British population were quizzed by the research group MINTEL on cinemagoing frequency, 43 percent said they went once a year or more often, 11 percent went less often, 44 percent went never. By 1985 cine-zeal had dwindled still further: 34 percent once a year or more, 18 percent less often, 49 percent never.
Between 1978 and 1983, the number of cinema seats in the country declined from 738,000 (spread over 985 sites and 1,519 screens) to 505,000 (707 sites and 1,293 screens). And even 1978's figures seem sickly when viewed in the context of British moviegoing history as a whole. In 1935, when the Department of Trade began recording the number of cinemas operating in the country each year, there were 4,448. This increased to 4,703 in 1945 and was still steady in 1950 at 4,660.
To find a historical parallel for today's meager tally of cinemas – around 1,200 – you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the century. And even in 1910, when we have the first unofficial cinema count in Britain, there were 1,600 movie theaters in the country – 23 percent more than today.
The effect of all these emptying Odeons, ABCs, and Alhambras has been to starve film production itself. Between 1974 and 1984, the number of feature films registered as British-made each year fell from 99 to 31. No wonder many industry lobbyists today are desperate to introduce legislation or levy systems that will require the goose that lays the golden eggs – the video market – not to keep them all to herself but to roll a few in the direction of the film studios, the distribution chains, and production companies.
How you reeducate people out of a new habit back into an old one is a vexed question. A Broadcasting Research Unit survey on "The Best Way to Watch a Feature Film" found that 31 percent said in the cinema and 64 percent said on VCRs or TV (Five percent were "Don't knows:' those perplexing people who presumably spend all day on their front doormats, keys in hand, wondering whether to stay in or go out.) Divided into age groups, these statistics break down into a predictably higher cinegoing ratio among the young.) But even in the 16-29 age group, home viewing gets the vote over going out to the local cinema, 57 percent to 39.
Why has video caught on so much more in Britain than in other developed countries? A 1984 survey comparing VCR penetration among major industrial countries showed Britain in the lead, five percentage points ahead of its nearest rival, Japan, and 13 points ahead of the third most video-oriented country, Norway. Paul Dezelsky, market analyst for Thorn-EMI, has no doubt that Britain's uniquely extensive rental business is partly responsible: "If you consider that there are 21 million households in Britain, virtually all TV equipped, then the 8 million rented TV sets in use today constitute about 38 percent of the market. Of those 8 million households renting TVs, 2.6 million also rent VCRs. So rentals are a big slice of the market. They're even more influential than these figures suggest, because many people begin by renting and then buy. Of course, there's no real financial logic to renting. But the rental habit has become ingrained in Britain, and its appeal is undoubtedly that it allows the customer that painless introduction to VCR viewing. In the process it lubricates the sales market."
In every country, video, cable, and TV all have the advantage over cinema that you don't have to put on your hat and coat or order a babysitter or get the car out or risk being mugged outside the viewing venue of your choice. But there's an advantage to video that isn't shared by cable or network TV or satellite: the "flexible response" facility. A video is like a book. You can choose not only when you read it but how you read it. You can view it in bits or all at one go; you can linger over it or skim-view it; you can go back or shoot forward; you can freeze shots; you can even fall asleep over it, as you can over your bedtime Robert Ludlum or Jane Austen, and when you wake up go back to where you tapped out and start again. You have final cut.
At video's birth the Jeremiahs prophesied that its appeal was so down-market it would never outlive the initial joys it offered to porno or splatter fanciers. But video has long since shaken off its For Creeps Only reputation. You can now watch opera, ballet, Masterpiece Theatre, Wimbledon tennis, gardening cassettes, yoga cassettes, how-to-look-after-your-dog and how-to-solve-the-Rubik's-Cube cassettes. Dynasty and Miami Vice, too.
You can even watch feature films. But if cinema wants to grab its customers back from this super-versatile gewgaw, it must come up with a whole new bag of tricks itself – or capitalize with renewed vigor on the old ones.
* The Broadcasting Research Unit is an independent body housed in the British Film Institute and funded by the BBC, the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority), and the Markle Foundation.
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE DECEMBER 1985 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.