The end of the Hollywood blockbuster

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on July 22, 2013

From The News Desk

In the wake of last weekend’s big budget bombs “R.I.P.D.” and “Turbo,” following successive massively underperforming movies such as “After Earth,” “White House Down,” “Pacific Rim” and “The Lone Ranger,” you can be sure studio executives are scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. As The New York Times put it, “The disasters were supposed to stay onscreen.” Each cost more than $130 million to make and as much as $225 million; combined, it’s probably close to $1 billion in production expenses and marketing, and when all is said and done the studios will be lucky to only lose a half-billion dollars.

If you want to see what Hollywood’s greatest challenges are ahead, however, look no further than my two kids. Recently we were upstate in a house with relatives over the July fourth holiday weekend, and my daughters, age seven and nine, were huddled around an iPad screen with their six-year-old cousin, streaming a show.

“Don’t you want to watch that on TV?” I asked, pointing to the high-definition television across the room.

“We can’t,” my oldest daughter, the ringleader said without looking up. “We’re watching ‘The Partridge Family.’”

Ah, yes, "The Partridge Family." You see, my kids are throwbacks in some ways and have developed a hankering for old 1970s sitcoms (“The Brady Bunch” and Partridge Family” being two of them). We have the entire five seasons of "The Brady Bunch" on DVD (it comes in a case covered in fake green shag carpeting) while “The Partridge Family” is, to the best of our knowledge, only available on Amazon.

While I subscribe to Amazon on our Roku box at home, hence its availability on my iPad, my mother-in-law has AppleTV, and Apple and Amazon don’t play nice – hence Amazon streaming is unavailable even to Prime customers like me. This corporate kerfuffle led me to swap AppleTV for Roku, since as an Amazon Prime member I get free streaming. My daughters don’t know the corporate back-story but nevertheless have become adept at navigating this balkanized world of content.

I sometimes call my kids my “Entertainment-on-Demand Girls.” They want what they want when they want it and are growing up never having to wait. My children can choose from an almost infinite selection of entertainment – thousands of shows and movies at the click of a button. Not only that they can control their experience, say, pause a scene to run to the bathroom or immediately play it back, over and over. Maybe they only feel like watching a sliver of a movie, like the “Make ‘Em Laugh” song-and-dance number from “ Singin’ in the Rain,” which they can view over and over again until their sides ache.

It’s not just with the iPad, DVD player or DVR, of course. If I pull out my iPhone or camera to shoot a photo, they want to see it immediately. The same goes with shooting video. They expect instant gratification and get it.

As for me, I’m actually surprised when I can watch something without having to wait or jump through hoops. When I was their age a movie like “The Sound of Music” or “The Wizard of Oz” might come to television once a year. If you missed it, you missed it. If you were a fan of a certain TV show and missed an episode, tough luck until summer reruns. For photos I had to take spent spools of 35mm film to a photo processor and wait 24 hours or even days to get the pictures back. Forget video. It was too expensive and complicated.  My entire generation was raised with the expectation that we have to wait for what we want.

I once told my daughter this, and the fact that when I was her age my family only had a black and white TV, since color was considered a luxury. “That’s sad, Daddy,” she said.

But here’s what should keep Hollywood executives up at night. My daughters don’t care much about the so-called quality of the experience. They don’t like to schlepp to movie theaters because the big-screen experience is less appealing than small-screen viewings on our television or iPad. The only time they want to go is when a movie they can’t get on TV or the iPad comes out, like “Despicable Me 2.” As for me, I’m happy to save the money it costs for us to see a movie in a theater – for a family of four it can be $40 or more plus transportation. That pays for four months of Netflix.

Hollywood makes a big deal out of monstrously garish smash ‘em-up blockbuster films, how movies that big shouldn’t be seen on screens that small. But they are missing the point. It’s the convenience – and, equally important, the availability of content.

When iTunes first came out in January 2001, making the purchase of digital music easy and seamless, the songs themselves were available through the iTunes store in 128 kbps, which is pretty low quality. (Today they come in 256 bits and services like MOG and Spotify let users stream music in 330 kbps.) It didn’t take an audiophile to hear the difference, but that didn’t stop people from buying iPods and downloading tunes from Apple. The experience was good enough, especially when played though headphones. The same goes for photos. Sure, you could buy a digital SLR and tote it around to snap pix of your kids. Many people do. But for most of us, our smartphone cameras are fine.

It’s no wonder Steven Spielberg and George Lucas predict the "implosion" of Hollywood blockbusters. Most entertainment would be made for streaming in mind while Hollywood would still gamble on far fewer humongous movies that would cost as much as theater tickets and sit in cinemas for a year at a time. Lucas even expects that one day there may be programmable dreams.

But for my kids and me going to movie theaters isn’t “an experience.” It’s a hassle. An expensive one. Maybe Hollywood will get the memo that we care most about story and character, which transcend the size of the screen.