Studios aren’t churning out as many films as they produced a decade ago, but there’s a case to be made that there are still too many movies hitting multiplexes.
Lower production costs and the rise of digital technology have lowered the barrier to entering the movie business, making it possible for more people to try to achieve their dream of being the next Steven Spielberg.
In 2004, roughly 490 films were released on fewer than 1,000 screens, according to data compiled by the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO). Last year, that number ballooned to 563 movies. The problem is that greater profits didn’t follow the influx of films. In 2004, revenue for films in this sector hit $380 million and admissions topped out at 61 million. Ten years later, revenue stood at $370 million, while admissions sputtered to 45 million.
Frequently, these films are vanity releases or pictures with limited commercial appeal and artistic value that are booking a handful of theaters in the hopes of goosing digital and home entertainment sales.
“Fifty percent of the movies being opened in New York and Los Angeles should never have been released theatrically,” said Seth Willenson, an entertainment industry consultant. “It dilutes the opportunity for there to be a true breakthrough independent film.”
Willenson believes that boom years for the 1% have left a group of people with money to burn — a state of mind that the movie business encourages. The problem is that not all of the projects they’re bankrolling are worthy of their riches. The New York Times, for one, agrees. The Gray Lady has decided to changed its film review policies, and no longer guarantees its critics will weigh in on every film that screens in the city. After Variety broke the news of the editorial shift, chief critic A.O. Scott cited the increasing number of releases as a reason for the decision.
“It’s driven a lot by what might have been in the past straight to DVD or straight to video releases that will open for a week on a Manhattan screen,” he said. “They will get the slight publicity boost of a New York Times review and that’s driven the numbers up.”
There’s also a wealth of putative blockbusters hitting screens. Studios may make a fraction of the number of films they did 10 years ago, but they remain interested in the kind of world-straddling, special effects-driven popcorn movies that drive the bulk of their earnings. In 2004, 24 films grossed more than $100 million, and in 2014, that figure increased to 33, NATO found.
Revenues for pictures in that range hit $4.4 billion in 2004 and accounted for 704 million admissions. A decade later, revenues were $6 billion and admissions for these types of pictures were 741 million.
Though there are more big pictures and tiny pictures, there aren’t enough films in the middle. The number of movies that grossed between $50 million and $100 million, essentially the range of grosses that could once be expected for romantic comedies and thrillers, fell from 41 in 2004 to 34 last year. The drop over that time frame was even more severe in the pictures in the under $50 million range, sliding from 81 to 66. Revenue for these films dropped from $1.8 billion to $1.7 billion, while admissions dipped from 287 million to 206 million.
The movie business is a mature industry. Despite the lack of a startup culture, there have been a number of new players entering the fray over the past year or two. Companies like Broad Green, Bleecker Street and STX Entertainment are all looking to make the kind of adult dramas that studios have abandoned in favor of animated fantasies and superhero yarns. Data like this indicates there’s an opportunity for someone to fill the gap. Heck, there’s even money to be made.