In a poignant piece about reconciling enjoyment of art when the producer of that art is known to be morally or criminally suspect Claire Dederer has really gotten to the meat of the issue. While she doesn’t end up giving us a definitive answer to whether we should embrace the art while separating the artist from it her questions, reflections, and insights might reflect the contemporary zeitgeist for reparative (and possibly preventative) justice.
In my previous post I talked about the minuscule returns that live audience ticket revenue gives for the total operating budget of movies. I’m going to divide this post into two parts as the first has gotten rather lengthy.
In this post I’ve summarized some of the things I brought up in the previous one, “Live audiences for Movies matter less than for Classical Music.” Then I’ll take a look at how and why Hollywood studios focus on the live audience demographic that it does and relate that to what seems to be a “holy grail” for Classical Music Crisis folks: the mythical younger audience. I’ll look at audience-creation that has become the primary marketing model for contemporary Hollywood studios after the precipitous decline in regular weekly movie-goers and how that relates to single-ticket marketing that’s becoming more prominent in the Classical Music field. The post ends with a discussion of the social costs that accompany some of this marketing strategy and its focus on younger audiences and how that relates to a lack of critical inquiry/reflection in the push to bring Classical Music into a “wider and more contemporary culture” (setting aside what’s problematic about saying that the field doesn’t already exist in it).
So, one of my birthday gifts was a copy of Edward Jay Epstein’s “The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies.” The book opens with this snippet in the intro.
There was a time around the middle of the twentieth century, when the box office numbers that were reported in newspapers were relevant to the fortunes of Hollywood: studios owned the major theater chains and made virtually all their profits from their theater ticket sales. This was a time before television sets became ubiquitous in American homes, and before movies could be made digital for DVDs and downloads.
Today, Hollywood studios are in a very different business: creating rights that can be licensed, sold, and leveraged over different platforms, including television, DVD, and video games. Box office sales no longer play nearly as important a role. And yet newspapers, as if unable to comprehend the change, continue to breathlessly report these numbers every week, often on their front pages. With few exceptions, this anachronistic ritual is what passes for reporting on the business of Hollywood.
To begin with, these numbers are misleading when used to describe what a film of studio earns. At best, they represent gross income from theater chains’ ticket sales. These chains eventually rebate about 50 percent of the sales to a distributor, which also deducts its outlay for prints and advertising (P&A). In 2007, the most recent year for which the studios have released their budget figures, P&A averaged about $40 million per title–more than was typically received from American theaters for a film in that year. The distributors also deducts a distribution fee, usually between 15 and 33 percent of the total theater receipts. Therefore, no matter how well a movie appears to fare in the box office race reported by the media, it is usually in the red at this point.
So where does the money that sustains Hollywood come from? In 2007, the major studios had combined revenues of $42.3 billion, of which about one-tenth came from American theaters; the rest came from the so-called backend, which includes DVD sales, multi-picture output deals with foreign distributors, pay-TV, and network television licensing.
The Royal Opera House recently announced it would soon begin beaming performances to American movie theaters, mimicking the broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera. We have also seen several high profile theater productions transmitted in a similar manner. The rationale given for the value of these broadcasts is that they build new audiences, although the jury is still out on this. From my unscientific observation, it seems we are merely substituting one source of entertainment for another for the same, traditional audience.
He brings up several questions about what this means in the bigger picture for the arts such as:
Are we witnessing a major transition in the arts from regional organizations to fewer mega-organizations with the sophistication to mount large scale productions, to market them well and to raise large sums of money?
Technology has certainly made it easier for consumers to access the best in culture – if not live than via their personal computers and mobile devices.
And as the cost of a ticket to a regional symphony or opera company has risen dramatically, is it now preferable to many consumers to watch name-brand singers, dancers and musicians at home, or a local movie theater at a far lower cost than going to a live performance at a regional venue?
Does this spell the end of the mid-sized regional arts organization? Will it be increasingly difficult to build an audience and a donor base for a $10 million arts organization? Will boards simply give up trying to fund ever-increasing budgets? Will many of these organizations shrink, or disappear entirely?
And even if many, if not all, performing organizations can access this technology and engage in this kind of broadcasting, it’s still a matter of what is the market for seeing the Small-Town-Symphony-Orchestra in the cinema play Beethoven’s 5th as opposed to seeing it played by the Berlin Philharmonic or the LA Phil? Other than possibly ex-pats from various cities, it would seem the market might be small–which is why I think a return to local culture could be a way to alleviate the competition issue since that would create product differentiation.
While the international market may prefer seeing a cast of the Berlin Phil perform Beethoven or the Met Opera perform Puccini what if the Louisville Orchestra were to start performing the works that made its international reputation that were commissioned specifically for them? What if Liza Kravinsky’s Go-Go Symphony were to create it’s own livecast market or Orchestras that exist to feature local composers, compositions, and content?
Certainly, growing audiences for such local institutions will take time, but it’s already happening as I’ve been documenting in many of my blog posts. I’ll be curious to see if what comes of it once an organization like this attempts to break into the cinema market. Of course so much of this is ironic given how the cinema industry put so many musicians out of work in the early 20th century as well as how live scores for films is making something of a comeback.