In the entertainment jungle, movies in theaters are still king

June 25th, 2012

by Billy Gray

AMC Theater near Times Square (credit: Andreas Praefcke)

In April, Netflix announced a $4.6 million first quarter loss, sending its stock down 14%. That earnings report coincided with the latest in a string of buoyant weekend box office results that, for the first time in a month, weren’t led by “The Hunger Games.” It was supposed to be the other way around, with Netflix and lesser digital foes decimating studios and theater associations. Hollywood executives must be elated, even if they had nothing to do with “The Hunger Games,” or other surprise box-office winners like, “Think Like a Man.”

Those who think like a betting man may be confused. Last year’s total box office  ($10.2 billion) was down about 4% from 2010 and 2009 despite inflation (although maybe thanks to pricy 3-D fatigue). Box Office Mojo’s year-to-date numbers show 2012 surging 16% ahead of 2011. Contrary to what cynical studio chiefs might believe, audiences won’t throw money away on anything—grosses depend on quality offerings, if only because of the trickle down effect a well-liked blockbuster with legs has on alternatives that aren’t sold out. But there’s more buoying the box office than the rising tide that is “The Hunger Games.”

Movies are delivering immediate, shared thrills absent from television today. TV might be better than ever, with critics declaring “Mad Men” and other series superior to big screen options. But what’s missing from citizen viewers is a sense of critical mass—the communal, simultaneous worship of a series that just recently led to a winking HBO recognition of keeping America’s office water cooler suppliers in business. Now, co-workers plug their ears for fear of hearing plot spoilers before they catch up with a show four nights after it’s aired.

If TV viewing has become a household chore—I’ll get through this DVR list if it kills me!—movies have reclaimed their status as fleeting special events, and have harnessed the social media bullhorn to let everyone know it. Witness “The Hunger Games”’ guerilla marketing campaign, which propelled the adaptation to the third biggest opening weekend ever. It’s true, to the lament of New Hollywood nostalgists, that the emphasis on “boffo” debuts is old hat. But these days, lining up overnight to sit in a dark theater full of strangers has become a charming anachronism.

As surefire and sleeper blockbusters revive the box office, the culture of independents is flourishing, even if indie receipts remain stubbornly anemic. The Tribeca Film Festival again democratized the often snooty and insular festival circuit this month in theaters throughout downtown Manhattan. And the recent opening of Nitehawk Cinemas in Williamsburg bolstered New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s assertion last year that the art house is alive and well in NYC after decades of perceived, much-lamented, decline.

Nitehawk doesn’t distinguish itself through arcane programming alone. It features an in-theater a la carte menu of food, beer and cocktails brought to you by in-theater waiters. The service is less obtrusive than you’d think, and augers a specialization of specialty cinemas that sets them apart from the prosaic in-home experience and leaves paying viewers happy to show up and watch the product on time.