Summer Blockbusters

This is the moment of truth for two sectors of the movie business that are at opposite ends of the spectrum — opposite in terms of commerce and culture.

For the Hollywood studios, it’s launch time (and prayer time) for summer blockbusters, the wakeup calls for Spider-Man, the X-Men, Captain America, Godzilla and all their superhero (or super-villain) brethren.

Paradoxically, in Cannes, it’s also zero-hour for the auteur superheroes of the festival circuit — time for Mike Leigh, David Cronenberg, Lars von Trier and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu to unveil their epiphanies.

Both sectors this year have plenty to gain, and to fear. Hollywood is fretful about the sharply increased defection of the young audience, but optimistic about the booming foreign box office. Festival filmmakers fear the incursions of Hollywood blockbusters but are hopeful about the potential of digital and on-demand markets. Both have this in common: They know they need good product.

Hollywood’s marketers can’t figure out why frequent filmgoers in the 18-24 age group bought 21% fewer tickets in 2013 — a formidable decline. One clue: According to a new MPAA study, some 74% of the total film audience that sees at least one film a month now owns at least four mobile devices. That’s a lot of distraction.

The most loyal members of the filmgoing population are those that neither distributors nor advertisers traditionally care about — the 40-and-older crowd, which represents 30% of ticket buyers; and the 50-and-older group, which makes up more than 20%. Ironically, advertisers still spent nearly $680 million to buy ads in movie theaters last year, up 6.5% from the year earlier, so someone must care about geriatric purchasing power.

The audience Hollywood most fervently chases dwells abroad: The $35.9 billion global pot of gold reflected an increase of 4% over 2012. Box office in China alone was up 27% (much of that admittedly due to an increase in returns from local films). And it’s clear that kids worldwide love superheroes, even superheroes in 3D — a format that’s been less super of late in the U.S. Their loyalties will be tested later this month when massive overseas “Spider-Man” and “Captain America” sequels all but collide.

The daunting reality in the domestic market, however, is that the number of tickets sold has fallen by nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013, a decline that has been masked by higher ticket prices. Distributors of both arthouse films and tentpoles know this charade cannot go on. Fewer people at the movie house means pain in the wallet to the exhibitor at the concession stand. Blockbusters need to lure the kids back to the multiplexes; festival auteurs need to find a price point that will appeal to the penny-pinching older crowd.

Discrete talks are under way between distributors and the theater circuits to devise a plan to sell discounted tickets at least once a week. Programs of this sort have helped the cause in Canada and parts of Latin America. In Spain, lower pricing is credited in part for drawing younger audiences to romantic comedy “Spanish Affair,” which has cumed more than $21 million in the territory in three weeks. Other changes in the anachronistic distribution process also are being explored, such as the idea of booking certain independent films directly into theaters, bypassing distributors. A more cost-effective release pattern combined with simultaneous distribution on digital platforms could provide needed muscle for the specialty circuit.

If innovations such as these succeed, then the moment of truth for the opposite poles of the movie business may turn out propitiously after all. There has to be room out there for the superheroes of both Hollywood and the festival circuit to coexist. Provided their movies measure up to expectations, that is.

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