I grew up in East Baltimore in the 1980s and 1990s, the twenty-year nightmare of peace, growth, and prosperity that we all endured before the New Normal debuted in 2001.
In those days, my Dad would lay $8 or $10 on my kid brother and me, and tell us to go up to the movies, to stay out for the afternoon. Why Dad wanted us out of the house, or what he and Mom got up to in those hours we were gone, I'll never know…
But maybe we'd get some friends and head up to the Patterson Theater, or the Grand Theater. These were East Baltimore's hallowed old dollar movies, the second run theaters. With a veritable king's ransom at hand, we'd spend 99 cents for a ticket and blow the rest on popcorn, drinks, and extremely sugary snacks.
We'd see movies like RoboCop, Ghostbusters II, The Hunt for Red October, Die Hard II, even Weekend At Bernie's or Look Who's Talking. Whatever your fancy, it was an afternoon at the movies for less than $10.
Just like the East Baltimore I knew, those days are long gone. And just like East Baltimore, the movies have changed forever.
Two Giants Give Us a Glimpse of Things To Come
George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, two undisputed titans of the medium, recently headed a panel discussion at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. The two directors have a grim prognosis for the future of the major studios and theatrical motion pictures – as we know them today.
In fact, according to George Lucas, we may live to see the day when going to the movies is really a niche market.
Essentially, the pair said, the studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on recycled remakes or franchises with dazzling special effects, but with plots full of holes big enough to fly the Millennium Falcon through. I myself faced up to this when I heard they were redoing Red Dawn. And every other summer, a new X-Men spinoff is thrust at us.
Through the law of diminishing returns, these are having big first weekends, but they do drive savvy moviegoers away from theaters. To put it mildly, the studios are in a crowded entertainment market and they are throwing dollar after dollar at these huge, ultimately unfulfilling mega-blockbuster franchises.
"There's eventually going to be a big meltdown, there's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that's going to change the paradigm again." said Spielberg to the audience.
Spielberg gave voice to what many observers have thought for a long time. The major movie studios, as we know them today, are dinosaurs living on borrowed time.
But before they go, they'll leave us with $150 movie tickets…
$150 Movie Tickets Not Far Off
Offering a fascinating glimpse of what is perhaps to come, Lucas added: "You're going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It'll be an expensive thing. … (The movies) will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the 'movie' business."
The directors see a small number of movies released in theaters, only those that are focus-grouped, market-tested, and lowest common-denominated into having as much appeal as possible. These will be what you're asked to spend $100 to see, although I'm not sure I'd care to.
Where to Find the Good Stuff
The really good stuff will be subscription-based, reserved for the Internet, or television. The Sopranos arguably changed the way television is made forever. The mobster-in-therapy premise threw open the door for television production to take risks, and to push the envelope on drama, violence, and emotional punch, all vital to good storytelling.
A modern television drama, like The Sopranos, or Mad Men, or Breaking Bad, delivers top-flight entertainment on cable. Sure, the "seasons" are shorter, with only 10 to 15 episodes per year, compared with 20 to 23 episode seasons of years past, but you can be assured of 13 episodes of pure entertainment with relatively high production values.
Along with shorter seasons, we're seeing the episodes themselves shortened, at least on commercial television. The average hour long drama actually only has 42 to 45 minutes of drama, the balance reserved for commercials. Twenty years ago, an hour long show had between 48 and 50 minutes of "show." It's all part of the new paradigm.
Spielberg and Lucas both foresee a big, as-yet-undeveloped market for taking individual, "quirky," user-created content, and marketing the results to targeted niches. This sounds suspiciously like a Youtube.com-style concept, which the consumer would then subscribe to and pay for. It's from this nebulous, undefined proto- market that the next Mad Men or The Sopranos is likely to come, not the major studios.
All of these new content development systems will be delivered via a technology that's already here: video on demand (VOD). Most of us have experience with this through our cable boxes, although it's hard to say how much longer those will be with us.
The Technology Is Already All Around Us
Remember when I told you about watching those "old" dollar movies twenty years ago at the Patterson?
Well, I'm not sure how it happened, but now I somehow have eight different devices in my home with which I can stream content from at least 11 (last time I counted) different content providers! One of these devices is tucked into my pocket as I write. Like me, you may not have noticed it, but the technology is already ubiquitous. It's the content we can't quite see yet.
If streaming content and $150 movies haven't got your head spinning, Spielberg and Lucas took a few moments to speculate on the future of video games, too.
While they both believe that the medium lacks truly empathetic characters, and there's too much mindless violence, the two directors see a day coming when joysticks and controllers are no longer needed to play. We've seen glimmers of that future with Nintendo's motion-sensitive Wii console, and Microsoft Xbox Kinect. The latter reads the position and posture of your entire body, not just what your hand is doing, and puts you in the action.
The Only Limit Is Imagination
"I believe [we] need to get rid of the proscenium. We're never going to be totally immersive as long as we're looking at a square, whether it's a movie screen or whether it's a computer screen." said Spielberg.
Beyond even that, George Lucas predicts a time, soon, when brain implants or interfaces will allow the user to create entire worlds based on what they'd like to see. These interfaces are already being used to control artificial limbs, but haven't been applied to pure entertainment yet. This technology will resemble magic, and the ability to control one's own dreams.
But, according to George Lucas, this is only a new spin on an ancient human pastime.
"You still have to tell stories. Some people will want to be in a game, and some people will want to have a story told to them. Those are two different things. But the content always stays the same. The content hasn't changed in 10,000 years."