I'm about a half hour into "The Irishman" the part where Robert De Niro throws a gun off a bridge in Philly. I don't consider this a spoiler alert because, after all, it's De Niro in a Martin Scorsese film and you have to figure it's gotta happen sooner or later. Anyway, I decided to take a break to write, because you can do that while watching movies these days.
So, obviously, I'm watching at home on Netflix and not at a movie theater because apparently nobody does that anymore. Well, maybe not as much. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing, but I do know there are fewer movie theaters than there used to be and people are not going out to the movies as often as they used to.
White Hutchison, a company that tracks attendance at out-of-home entertainment venues, says the average person went out to the movies 3.5 times in 2018, spending a little over $30 for tickets. That's a 28 percent decrease from the industry's high of 5.2 trips by your average moviegoer to the cinema in 2002, the company says.
White Hutchison also says the downward trend is the result of all the other new entertainment venues competing to try to lure people off the convenience and comfort of their couches. The competition has convinced many moviemakers that only blockbuster-type "event" movies can do this and, again, the figures bear this out. The 10 biggest-grossing movies of 2018 accounted for a third of all ticket sales and eight of those movies were offered in 3D and all 10 at IMAX theaters. And no, as opposed to the word I used referring to "The Irishman," there's not a "film" among them. They're stories jazzed up with lots of special effects, action and/or cartoon characters.
I started wondering about the state of cinema-going when I read that Netflix was making a blockbuster movie with Scorsese, De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino, but was forgoing the usual 90-day window given to let theaters show the movie before offering it to Netflix subscribers, mostly streaming rather than DVDs now. Instead, the movie would get limited release in select theaters and be available on your phone or tablet or smart TV in 30 days.
Wouldn't theater owners be ticked off, I wondered? Yes, they would and are. Then again, Scorsese made the film 3½ hours long, which is tough to sit through without intermission, popcorn refill and bathroom breaks. Also, most theaters can only show it twice a day because of the length, cutting into potential profits.
Nonetheless, Netflix went through with this plan and "the Irishman" opened initially on eight screens in New York and Los Angeles. More were added a week later. It had good ticket sales and mixed reviews in select theaters. But it drew about 17 million smaller-screen viewers in its first week of release on Netflix.
What's the point? I'm not sure, but this was certainly an "event" film because of the cast of characters in front of and behind the camera. Maybe that's the point. What exactly do we mean by an "event" movie today? Forgive me here as I wander into a now-distant past to my introduction to movie-going. (It's a long film. Let's call this an early intermission.)
My mother loved to go to the movies. In Bayonne, N.J., where I grew up, there were six movie theaters in the 1940s and '50s. Not bad for a city of some 65,000. There was also lots of public transportation and the streets were safe to walk. If you wanted to see whatever movie was the latest hit, there was no problem. It was also cheap.
When I was old enough, my mom would sometimes take me along. She would also often buy whatever dish was for sale to continue to put together the full set. Gold-leaf trim. I still have some pieces. For me and my mom, I'm sure going to the movies was an event, something to look forward to and enjoy a lot more than 3.5 times a year.
And star power? Here's a sampling, in no particular order, of actors you could see on the big screen in the 1940s and 1950s: James Stewart, Elizabeth Taylor, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Henry Fonda, Orson Welles, Gary Cooper, James Dean, Jack Lemmon, Audrey Hepburn, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Tyrone Power, Rita Hayworth, Lauren Bacall, Humphrey Bogart, Paul Newman, Marlon Brando, James Cagney, Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Gregory Peck. Grace Kelly, Yul Brynner, William Holden, Tony Curtis, Ingrid Bergman, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Ernest Borgnine, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Debbie Reynolds, Danny Kaye, Laurence Olivier, Robert Mitchum, Errol Flynn, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Bud Abbot and Lou Costello. (Don't bother checking. I didn't repeat anyone.)
When I reached my early teens and could go on my own or with friends (remember, the streets were safe to walk then), I looked forward to Saturday matinees. It usually included two westerns (Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Randolph Scott, John Wayne), at least six cartoons and a serial ("Flash Gordon" or "Don Winslow of the Navy"). For a quarter. Popcorn was extra. Now, that was an almost weekly event.
Times have changed. Television ended Hollywood's Golden Age. Smart phones, etc., are killing television. The streets aren't safe. Popcorn at the movies is a budget-buster.
But also, while you can watch football on a phone today, you cannot see someone "act." There is an added dimension when you share an emotional moment in a movie with a theater full of strangers that is missing on your couch. While they have connected us as never before, in some ways smart phones have also made us more isolated. As for the movies themselves, rewriting comic books for the big screen can only go as far as the characters (Batman, for example) allow. And, though spectacular visual effects may be big box office, they can't replace the feeling of watching a grownup story portrayed by talented actors.