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Breaking Through The Darkness

There is something shifting in this business, a realization is emerging. The realization is that at the core of any recovery is one word, community. This afternoon I received a phone call from Buck Kolkmeyer. Buck is a great cheerleader for independent theaters and independent cinema in general. He was more than pleased that the Funimation and Aniplex release, Demon Slayer was doing well/ You see Buck is the biggest cheerleader for anything independent.

Two movies, each appealing to two very distinct pools of fanboys, one anime and the other video gamers, each looking to garner over $19M apiece this weekend. We’re talking about NewLine’s Mortal Kombat, which was released day and date on HBO Max and Funimation/Aniplex’s Demon Slayer The Movie. Both movies are blowing away expectations, which were around $10M for Demon Slayer and $10M-$12M for Mortal Kombat. They will exceed expectations. Demon Slayer, in particular, was Japan’s number 1 grossing title and for an original Japanese that means something. It means that if you give a specific community what they want they will reward you with box office shekels. Both communities are ardent and know exactly what they want.

Buck’s excitement was based on the fact that in his wise eyes this weekend's performance at the box office shines a path forward for movie-going. A path that has more to do with serving specific communities of interest than do wide national releases.

Four hours later, I was sitting in my favorite seat at the Historic Artcraft Theatre. My wife volunteers there and I sat and read while she sold tickets. I had been excited for weeks. This was a screening of the baseball classic “Major League”.  This 1989 movie was helmed by David Ward, the same guy who wrote “The Sting”. The Artcraft had sold out this showing.

It was fascinating that once the Artcraft had announced it was reopening, an excitement descended on the downtown core of this small American town. A buzz took hold. “The Artcraft was re-opening” was heard in so many conversations, an emotional high gripped this place and you could see excitement and tradition is celebrated. It is something amazing when the human soul is given a steady stream of both community and nostalgia.

I carefully watched the audience as it wound its way into the auditorium. At 6 PM people were lining up to come in. Remember this was a movie made 33 years ago and is on streaming and DVD. The audience chattered excitedly, picking out their seats. The volunteers at this Vatican of community theater were obviously excited. They welcomed people back home and bathed in the genuineness of the experience. The Artcraft has strictly tried to follow guidelines and twice attempted to open. In the end, the wise management made the decision to close solely based on the safety of its community. This weekend, the theater reopened.  Tonight every customer came to the box office wearing a mask. One fellow approached the management and told them he had accidentally forgotten his mask at home, but he insisted that he wear one. The management gladly provided him with one.

I had the privilege of swapping old movie stories with the projectionist, Steve Blair, prior to the show. Steve brings a deep sense of passion to every frame and the way he handles a Simplex 35mm projector is artful.

The theater was built in 1923, it was old. Every crack, every flaw celebrated an almost one-hundred-year movie-going tradition. This theater had earned its stripes and no other AMC or Regal could compete with it for character and ambiance. It holds a deep emotional patina for all those making the pilgrimage to this Shrine of True Movie Going. I know the audience scanned the auditorium and took solace that this grand old lady still held sway. The lights dimmed.

A hidden announcer introduced the man whom I feel is the Sultan of Showmanship, Rob Shilts, as he walked across the stage microphone firmly in hand. The audience is thrilled to see him. He welcomed the audience, engaged them, prizes were given out and the audience was grateful to be back to their cinematic home. The lights dimmed. The National Anthem was played followed by a classic Warner Brothers cartoon and finally by Major League. It was like the audience as a whole was wrapped in a warm blanket and told a story that they relished.

The audience laughed, became emotionally attached to the characters, and as the movie ended broke out in applause.  Movie going in my small town was back and back with a vengeance.

Today’s movies do not evoke the same response. One of the major reasons is that the people who make the decisions about the direction of the movies do not care. Hollywood as a whole is a vibrating hive of self-interest. Very few of them have an eye on the prize, their prize is an insulated, unnatural lifestyle based on the premise that for some reason they are better than most. They, as an industry, have ceased to speak to the vast majority of us.

They embrace streaming because bottom line, streaming movies do not have to be as good as movies that play in the theater. With the streaming, they have the opportunity to celebrate their own mediocrity.  All streaming services are starting to face the reality of slow subscriber growth and rumors are floating that Netflix is running out of steam. Facing a myriad of competitors and having to spend millions upon millions for new content acquisition, it is becoming apparent that streaming is becoming a very expensive proposition.  For a decade Netflix has enjoyed a honeymoon existence with the consumer and now with the advent of other studio-based streamers, the barbarians are truly at the gates of Netflix.

In closing, last Sunday the Hollywood studios put forward The 93rd Oscars. As is my habit I watched them, but this year I could not make it through. The insular perspective and rampant egoism were more than off-putting. A buffet of self-indulgence with little regard for the audience. What was apparent was by the embracing of streaming, this classic celebration of the Movies has been diluted to a point where it has little appeal and little relevance. Hollywood’s enforced detachment from the real world continues and they are being destroyed by their lack of connection with the audience.

The land of $120 hair cuts and kale omelets is hopelessly adrift.