Eclipsed by TV: “The Master,” top, has been seen by about 1.9 million viewers, much less than the audience for an episode of “Mad Men,” bottom.
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
October 28, 2012
But it’s starting to feel as if it might be“The Last Picture Show.”
Next year’s Academy Awards ceremony — the 85th since 1929 — will be landing in a pool of angst about movies and what appears to be their fraying connection to the pop culture.
After the shock of last year’s decline in the number of tickets sold for movies domestically, to 1.28 billion, the lowest since 1995 (and attendance is only a little better this year) film business insiders have been quietly scrambling to fix what few will publicly acknowledge to be broken.
That is, Hollywood’s grip on the popular imagination, particularly when it comes to the more sophisticated films around which the awards season turns.
Several industry groups, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, and the nonprofit American Film Institute, which supports cinema, are privately brainstorming about starting public campaigns to convince people that movies still matter.
That seemed self-evident only a few years ago. But the mood has turned wistful as people in the industry watch the momentum shift toward television. Even the movies’ biggest night will feed that trend: the Academy has lined up Seth MacFarlane, a powerful television writer-producer, as the host of the Oscars.
“Shakespeare wrote his sonnets long after the sonnet form fell out of fashion,” James Schamus, a screenwriter and producer who is also the chief executive of Focus Features, noted in an e-mail last week.
George Stevens Jr., the founder of the American Film Institute, said he would not descend “like Cassandra,” with a lecture for members of the movie Academy, when he accepts his honorary Oscar at their Governors Awards banquet on Dec. 1.
“I think they will find their way, but it’s a time of enormous change,” Mr. Stevens said. He spoke by telephone last week of his concern that a steady push toward viewing on phones and tablets is shrinking the spirit of films. In the past, he said — citing “A Man for All Seasons,” “8 ½,” and “The Searchers” — there was a grandeur to films that delivered long-form storytelling on very large screens.
But the prospect that a film will embed itself into the cultural and historical consciousness of the American public in the way of “Gone With the Wind” or the “Godfather” series seems greatly diminished in an era when content is consumed in thinner slices, and the films that play broadly often lack depth.
As the awards season unfolds, the movies are still getting smaller. After six weeks in theaters “The Master,” a 70-millimeter character study much praised by critics, has been seen by about 1.9 million viewers. That is significantly smaller than the audience for a single hit episode of a cable show like “Mad Men” or “The Walking Dead.”
“Argo,” another Oscar contender, had about 7.6 million viewers through the weekend. If interest holds up, it may eventually match the one-night audience for an episode of “Glee.”
The weakness in movies has multiple roots.
Films, while in theaters, live behind a pay wall; television is free, once the monthly subscription is paid. And at least since “The Sopranos” sophisticated TV series have learned to hook viewers on long-term character development; movies do that mostly in fantasy franchises like the “Twilight” series.
And a collapse in home video revenue, caused partly by piracy, drove film salaries down. Television, meanwhile, raised its pay, and attracted movie stars like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Linney, Claire Danes and Sigourney Weaver.
Ticket sales for genre films like “Taken 2” or Mr. MacFarlane’s broad comedy, “Ted,”remain strong. And a growing international audience, particularly in China, has brightened the outlook for action-hero blockbusters like Marvel’s “Avengers” or “Dark Knight Rises.”
But the number of films released by specialty divisions of the major studios, which have backed Oscar winners like “Slumdog Millionaire,” from Fox Searchlight, fell to just 37 pictures last year, down 55 percent from 82 in 2002, according to the Motion Picture Association of America.
The drop-off leaves many viewers feeling pained.
“They feel puzzled,” said the critic David Denby. “They’re a little baffled.” He was referring to those who have applauded his argument — made both in a New Republic essay “Has Hollywood Murdered the Movies?” and in a new book, “Do the Movies Have a Future?” — that the enduring strength of film will depend on whether studios return to modestly budgeted but culturally powerful movies.
“If they don’t build their own future, they’re digging their own graves,” Mr. Denby said.
Mr. MacFarlane; the Oscar producers, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron; and the president of the Academy, Hawk Koch, declined through an Academy spokeswoman to discuss the challenges of celebrating film.
Privately some Academy members have said they were jolted by the choice of Mr. MacFarlane as host, in what appears to be a bid for viewers who have flocked to his television hits, notably “The Family Guy.”
But Henry Schafer, an executive vice-president at the Q Scores Company, which measures the statistical appeal of celebrities, said that “if the idea is to attract the younger audience, I think they got the right choice.”
Still, Daniel Tosh, who hosts “Tosh. O,” a hit Comedy Central series that highlights silly Web videos and skewers their participants, has given the doubters a voice. After playing a clip of two Russian men dropping a live grenade over the side of their boat and blowing it up, Mr. Tosh deadpanned: “It’s still a better idea than having Seth MacFarlane host the Oscars.”
The turn toward Mr. MacFarlane, who directed and voiced a foul-mouthed Teddy bear in “Ted,” his main contribution to feature film, has left the Academy scratching for ways to get the public reinvested in the sort of pictures it typically honors. Its staff, for instance, has been looking at the possibility of getting filmmakers who have made Best Picture winners to join a promotional campaign in theaters. In Los Angeles the Academy is also building a movie museum, meant to showcase the medium.
Separately the National Association of Theater Owners recently asked public relations and advertising consultants to submit proposals for a similar push.
Board members of the Film Institute also have been looking ways to strike a new interest in feature film, said Bob Gazzale, its president. Mr. Gazzale said it was too early to discuss details, but another person briefed on the initiative said the group had considered things as far afield as reaching out to prominent politicians — say, Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton — as supervisors of film awards programs. The goal would be to re-establish a connection with viewers who were turning elsewhere for cultural direction.
In a discussion at Colorado State University this month, Allison Sylte, a student journalist, suggested that the Academy helped break the connection between her generation and high-end movies in 2011 when it chose as Best Picture “The King’s Speech,” which looked backward, rather than “The Social Network,” which pushed ahead.
“So, what does that mean for us as a culture?” Ms. Sylte asked of a vacuum that might occur if the better films went away.
The hole, Mr. Gazzale said, to whom the question was relayed, would be a large one.
“Movies remind us of our common heartbeat,” he said.
Brooks Barnes contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: October 30, 2012
Because of an editing error, an article on Monday about Hollywood’s efforts to restore cultural relevance to the movies described incorrectly the decline at the domestic box office last year. The decrease was in tickets sold, to 1.28 billion; it was not a decline in ticket sales revenue to $1.28 billion.