Variety editorial

Jack Valenti’s annual ShoWest report Tuesday on American box office trends is sure to leave Hollywood with the queasy feeling of a bleary-eyed tourist who barely survives a Las Vegas bender: Everyone is likely to be wondering, “How did I get here and why did I do this to myself?”

If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that there’s no quick fix to the long decline in admissions at the B.O.

U.S. box office admissions shrank by 4% last year to 1.57 billion. The competition for box office dollars is “a lacerating catalog of rivalries and marketplace antagonisms,” Valenti said: There are now 108 million homes with TVs, 98 million with VCR’s and 47 million with DVDs.

Every year, Hollywood searches for an answer to this growing problem, and the film business usually delivers one in the form of a revolutionary title that rockets out of nowhere and captivates a huge segment of the population. This year, it’s Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”; in 2002, it was “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”

But both these titles were independently financed and distributed — a fact that shouldn’t sit well with the studios.

Hollywood has an unfortunate tendency to try to solve a problem by spending more money. Last year, the studios responded to shrinking admissions, as they have for years, with bigger, more spectacular tentpoles and splashier marketing campaigns. The combined cost of producing and marketing a studio film in 2003 rose by 15% to $102.8 million. It’s a worrisome trend, and Valenti urged studios to exercise greater fiscal discipline.

If there’s any lesson to be learned from “Greek Wedding” and “Passion,” however, it’s that studios don’t need huge production and marketing expenditures to woo audiences. Word of mouth is a commodity driven by originality, by giving auds something different — not more expensive versions of old formulas.

Hollywood wants an easy solution, but no film can single-handedly inspire a box office turnaround. “Wedding,” “Passion” and “The Blair Witch Project” were all phenomenons that were based on personal visions, with no development hell and no mega-marketing. The only lesson is an age-old one: If you make movies people want to see, they’ll come.

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