A forlorn little character who carried a sign proclaiming “The end of the world is near” used to turn up regularly in New Yorker cartoons. Then one day a rival’s sign demanded, “How near?”

Those signs sum up the present debate about the future of the entertainment industry. Everyone agrees the ground is shifting, but how fast? Some Internet gurus want you to believe it’s all going to happen tomorrow. I doubt it.

A key facet of this debate focuses on filmgoing. Reading the New York Times last summer, you’d believe that filmgoers “had turned their backs on the whole business of going to theaters.” Reporting on the box office downtick, the Times repeatedly declared that “Hollywood’s box office slump has hardened into a reality that is setting the movie industry on edge.” One story even quoted New Line’s Bob Shaye warning of “a seismic evolution of people’s habits.”

I’m sure Shaye is right, but not in the short term. Indeed, this year the numbers are all positive. Even the Times has changed its tune, though its estimate of a 5% gain in admissions is a bit optimistic. Variety‘s scorekeepers figure box office receipts are about 4% ahead of last year and that adjusting for ticket price increases, admissions should be about even.

These tallies are hardly earth-shaking, but consider this: Movie marquees this year haven’t offered another “Harry Potter” or “Spider-Man” or “Lord of the Rings,” and some of the “franchise” movies that emerged (excluding the “Pirates” franchise) were far from billion-dollar bets — consider “Superman Returns” and “Mission: Impossible III.” The true explanation for the brightened box office can be traced to surprises like “The Devil Wears Prada” or even relatively obscure hits like “Little Miss Sunshine.”

In other words, what we used to call “movie movies” have come through for the distributors this year more than “franchise movies.” Arguably, the movies got better, so the returns got better. For Hollywood, “the end of the world” didn’t happen.

Will a similar picture emerge in other sectors of the entertainment economy? The answer is: Stay tuned.

More consumers doubtless will receive their entertainment via cell phones or other portable devices. All sorts of Internet-delivered information and entertainment will be flashing across our living room TV sets. As Sir Howard Stringer suggests, our eyeglasses will themselves inevitably deliver some form of entertainment (he’s semi-jesting).

All this will happen, but not this year. How soon? I’d ask that little guy holding the “how near?” sign. Maybe he knows something the rest of us don’t.

At least he’s asking the right question.

Pushing The Envelope

The studios are spending slightly less money on Oscar campaigns this season, but there are more entities trying to grab whatever’s around.

The most obvious newcomer is the Los Angeles Times, which has been battling its advertising downturn with a special section called The Envelope. The sole purpose of the section in print and online is to corral Oscar ads. The Times tells advertisers that voting members of the Academy will receive copies of the section and presumably also have access to the Envelope.com.

The Envelope, to be sure, exhibits an oddly split personality. On the one hand, its purpose is to create — indeed, inflame — Oscar buzz, but much of what passes for editorial content casts a skeptical eye on the very process it covers.

Weekly polls, for example, ask arcane questions like, “Which high-profile actor should lend his voice to an animated feature?” (The winner: Leonardo DiCaprio, who beat out Jack Nicholson.) The section even carries regular features by Tom O’Neil, who has found a mini-niche with something called a “buzzmeter.”

On the other hand, The Envelope also runs curmudgeonly stories by the likes of Patrick Goldstein. One of his pieces was headlined “The buzz biz busted.” In it he warned: “That noise you hear from your computer is the sound of insiders’ insiders creating their own Oscar hype.”

Reviewing the various bloggers who deal in “Oscar hype,” Goldstein said his “favorite Tom O’Neil headline is, ‘Did Oscar break up Reese and Ryan?’ “

One year ago Goldstein declared that Oscar predictions are a “demeaning, nauseatingly superficial ritual.”

Come off it, Patrick. You like all that Oscar hype. Otherwise, how could your newspaper lure potential ad buyers and thus pay your salary?

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