Sunday, June 17, 2012

John Williams: The Most Prolific Man In Film?

Motion pictures have been with us for over a hundred years now, and  has influenced and changed our culture immensely. Movies are unique, in so much as it is the nexus by which science and art coalesce.  The intangible human element of drama blends with the latest technology creating richer and deeper canvases that  storytellers use to whisk audiences from their seats and into the heart of a story. So many components go into a movie, from directors and actors to cameramen and costume designers. Let's also give credit to editors, producers, recording engineers, special effects wizards, and the ever present best boy. If one were to ask, "who is the most influential man in film history?", naturally we would look to the disciplines of acting, directing, and screen writing to find the answer. Yet the real answer may come from a different discipline all together, the composer. Enter John Williams, musician, conductor, and  composer, who's body of work over the last 45 years has been the emotional driving force behind Hollywood's finest, and most popular films.

Surely not. If one is discussing influential people in film, certainly names like Steven Spielberg and Orson Welles instantly spring to mind. Surely their directing and storytelling techniques have shaped the industry far more than John Williams. Perhaps, but consider the Academy, an institution established to acknowledge and honor all those who have contributed to the motion picture industry. Spielberg's career has earned him six Academy Award nominations for best director, two of which he won (Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan). Orson Welles received three nominations, with one win. John Williams; a jaw-dropping forty-seven nominations, with five wins! In fact, of the AFI's top 100 films of all time, John Williams' work appears six times. 

Music connects with the listener in a way no other art form can. It stirs the emotion. Indeed, music is a legitimate art form in itself, practiced for thousands of years, and has been a part of theater for just as long. Indeed, it could be argued that theater needs music more than music needs theater. To enjoy music, one simply needs to hear. Yet while theater can tell its story without music, it's music that sets the tone and mood in a way no actor, prop, lighting, or dialogue ever could. 

While a man of contemporary times, John is not a contemporary composer. Many films use contemporary music, be it the popular expression of its day. Indeed his style is in the classical sense, often referred to as neoromanticism. Epic leitmotif scores, inspired by classic composers such as Richard Wagner keeps his music timeless. In fact, the style, fashion, and filmmaking techniques used in the films he's contributed to will date those films before his music ever would. 

John's earliest work was on the small screen, doing music for the television show Lost In Space, Land Of The Giants, and the pilot episode of Gilligan's Island. His early film works include Valley Of The Dolls and Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Both of which earned him his first nominations, but it was his score on 1971's Fiddler On The Roof where he won his first Oscar. His work on Star Wars(and its sequels), Jaws, Superman, Jurassic Park, Close Encounters, Schindler's List, Harry Potter(and sequels) E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial, Saving Private Ryan, and Raider's Of The Lost Ark(and sequels) are among his most recognizable works, which also happen to be among the most popular films of all time. Now, I'm not suggesting that these films broke box office records because people purchased tickets to hear his latest masterpiece. But one cannot deny that his contributions to these films gave them a distinct signature that separates them from other, more mediocre films. And there lies John's true talent. While first and foremost a musician, John has an understanding of film that is on par with notable directors and screen-writers. In the movie Immortal Beloved, Gary Oldman plays Beethoven. In one scene he explains that music is the ability to carry the listener into the mind of the composer. Indeed, any music writer is in a way, telling their own story. But John goes a step further. He is able to grasp what the filmmaker has in mind, then carries the listener into the film itself. Think about that for a moment. While many musicians struggle to carry the listener into their own mind, he carries the listener into his interpretation of the filmmakers mind. In fact, his work is so ingrained into movie audiences' subconscious,  that it instantly carries the listener to the heart of the film. Perhaps one does not have the time to sit and re-watch Raiders of the Lost Ark or Star Wars, but to listen to their iconic themes, one experiences those films. A two hour visual is summed up in a six or seven minute musical piece. 

Yet, despite so many awards and nominations, despite a lifetimes work of creating the soundtrack to the later half of the 20th Centuries' greatest films, John Williams is still largely overlooked by the casual audience member. Like College Football, making a film is a team effort. If the directors, actors, and screen-writers are the Quarterbacks and receivers, than John Williams is a talented Fullback. Fullbacks do not get the lion's share of the glory, yet they're the ones making the critical blocks, and sometimes, score some impressive yardage themselves. Maybe John is a champion of those who participate in film, but never get the glory; the engineer, designer, continuity director, and the all present best boy. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Should Movies Be Priced Like Automobiles?

Cars have an intended function, transportation. They pretty much have all the same features; wheels, brakes, radio, engine, windshield, and all the standard features that meet federal and state guidelines for safety and legality, ie: mirrors, turn signals, seat belts, air bags, headlights, break-lights, etc. Yet a Ford Focus costs around $16,000, while a Ford Mustang costs over $23,000. A Lexus RX, $39,000. Why the huge gap in prices? Simple, the answer is quality. Better parts, better design and engineering, performance, and definitely more bells and whistles. But isn't that the same across all avenues of marketing? The higher the quality, better features, and more bells and whistles, the more expensive it is. A men's polo shirt at Wal-Mart is far cheaper than one sold at Macy's. Again, we're talking quality of material, stitching and craftsmanship, etc. All of this, of course, comes down to money. The more money companies invest in a product to up its quality, the more they will charge for it. If a Ford Focus and a Lexus RX cost the same, wouldn't everyone purchase the Lexus then? So why can't movie ticket prices do the same?

Movies have an intended function, to entertain. They pretty much have all the same features; actors, directors, editors, sets, props, as well as all the components that make for a feature length film, ie: runtime, a narrative, plot, conflict, resolution, etc. Like cars, movies vary in terms of quality. But movie tickets all cost the same.

Take a look at this early Summer for instance. The Dictator vs The Avengers. The Dictator had a production budget of $65million and a runtime of 1h 23m. The Avengers had a production budget of $220million with a runtime of 2h 22m. Avengers' budget shows with better actors, directing, performances, and a dump truck full of bells and whistles. So, when standing in line to purchase a $9 ticket, which is gonna give you more bang for your buck? Some could say that they prefer The Dictator over The Avengers because they want a good comedy, and just aren't into comic book films. That's a fair argument. But box office returns have clearly illustrated those people are in the minority. 

In today's struggling economy, people have to make choices. How many times have we said to ourselves, "I want to see both movies. I guess I'll see (movie A) in theaters, I can wait for (movie B) to hit cable." Such was my attitude in deciding between The Dictator and The Avengers. Had The Dictator offered a matinee price of $3 and a regular price of $4, that certainly would have swayed my decision. Not that I would have forgone The Avengers, but I would have seen both films in their theatrical run. I'm sure theater owners wouldn't object, as they maintain they don't profit from ticket sales. Yet, keep me in the theater longer, and that's more opportunity that I'll fork over money for their overpriced concessions. 

Studios may argue that such pricing could hamstring any profitability from lower budget films (it's sad to think 60 million is "low-budget"). That may be true, but studios who adopt that line of thinking don't consider the reverse, that bigger doesn't always mean better. Take a look at Battleship. Like The Avengers, it too had a budget of over $200million and a runtime well over two hours. Yet it sank. Didn't that hamstring the studio's profits too? In April 2012, a romantic-comedy, or rom-com, was released called Think Like A Man. It scored a hair under $90million domestically, with a production budget of merely $12million. A very profitable film. More so than The Avengers, in terms of investment vs return is concerned. Think Like A Man earned the studio a profit of 600%. The Avengers earned merely 165% profit. If we maintain the argument that ticket prices should reflect budget, than Think Like A Man would have made less money right? Perhaps. According to RottenTomatoes, critics seemed split (53%), but audiences gave it a thumb's up (88%). So split critics and good word of mouth made this movie $90million. Would shaving $3 off the price of the ticket have ham-stringed its profits? It still would have earned far more than what was invested, and I dare say the financial loss from a reduced ticket price would be softened by audiences who didn't go see this film because split critics and word of mouth wasn't enough to sway them. Now, many of them would go see it, because the bargain sold them on it.

Wait a minute. Don't studios already do this? Not in theatrical runs, but certainly in DVD sales? Like a theatrical run, they all cost $19.99 (more for blue-ray). But after a year or so, many end up in the bargain bin, while others still command a higher price-tag. Some films, studios feel, are so profitable, that they vault the films, releasing them to the public for a short time every so many years. In fact, statistics show that in the film industry, more money is to be had in DVD sales than theatrical sales. Indeed, home movie entertainment has moved from back-end profits to the front end. 

Movie prices are indeed a huge factor in a consumers' purchasing decision. Stores like Buybacks are built on the business model of buying/selling used DVDs. Hey, if I save $9 on a movie because it's used, that's a good deal. It doesn't diminish the quality of the film or my enjoyment of it, plus it's under a limited 30-day warranty (in case the previous owners scratched it causing it to malfunction).

Would adjusting ticket prices to reflect budget and it's assumptive quality change the landscape of how films are made? Would studios be less willing to fork over $200million for fear that it would drive ticket prices up? Would Indy films be given their due? I'd say the biggest change would be in the overall quality of films. For example, no way would we see another Battleship, at least not at a +$200million budget. This film was directed by Peter Berg, who's directing credits include so-so films like Very Bad Things, The Rundown, and The Kingdom. Where as Avatar was directed by James Cameron, who's films include Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, Abyss and Titanic. In other words, James has a proven track record with making movies that are both quality and profitable films. Some might argue that this would hold younger talent down, while only the older guard will make the big bucks. Not true. Remember, long before the studios gave him the reigns of a $200million dollar project, Mr. Cameron had to cut his teeth on some low budget films, like Terminator and Pirannah 2: the Spawning, to prove he could tell a good story without relying on expensive props and effects. Directors like Spielberg will even be given a pass by audiences and studios should he turn out a clunker or two, because of his overall success in film making. The same will hold true for actors, writers, editors, FX departments, etc. 

Hold on. Isn't that kind of how it works anyway? Surely Johnny Depp didn't command his current salary while filming A Nightmare on Elm St., or Private Resort. True, but when actors start commanding those high-end salaries, I think you'll start seeing them behaving more selectively, attaching themselves to better quality films. Johnny's latest films, Dark Shadows, Rango, The Tourist and Public Enemies all failed to turn a profit domestically. They keep his name in the public's ear, but too much could damage his bottom line. Look at Tom Cruise, he's just not as bankable as he used to be. Certainly Studios could of saved 12-15million on hiring a good, but somewhat undiscovered, actor for Vanilla Sky, The Last Samurai, and Valkyrie, selling America on the strength of its story rather than the name of its actor. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Are Movie Tickets Too Expensive?

Perhaps it's human nature. Perhaps it's a sense of nostalgia. It seems when we look back at our past, life seemed simpler, and prices were far more reasonable. Today, ticket prices are higher than ever. With a struggling economy, it seems going out to see a movie is no longer a cheap date, but an expensive affair. Take a date to the Olive Garden, and expect to pay around $28 (no alcohol). For that price you get a pleasant atmosphere, good conversation, and an intimate feel. Take her out one evening to a show, popcorn and soda included, and expect to shell out over $35. For that price, you get sticky floors, no privacy, and people talking throughout the film. Now imagine taking a family of four out. But is it nostalgia, or the truth? Are ticket prices less affordable now than when we were young?

Unfortunately, I am no economist. So I can not factor in the subtle nuances of inflation, supply & demand, population growth, or the myriad of other factors that go into determining the cost of what a ticket price should be. However, it seems foolish to assume a default attitude of "they're just trying to rip me off." Indeed, theaters must make money, but they must also compete for your dollar. Theaters offer entertainment, and they recognize that entertainment isn't as high a priority as say paying bills, buying food or clothes, or purchasing gasoline. So their prices have to be reasonable, right?

Still, even without being an economist, one can attempt to gauge a reasonable picture of ticket prices and determine if they are indeed too much. We'll make comparisons to average ticket prices vs minimum wage, plus factor in other concerns such as unemployment rates, recessions, and poverty levels.

We'll start with the year I saw my first movie, Star Wars. Truth be told, I probably seen others before Star Wars, but that's the film I have full recollection of seeing.

1977: The average ticket price was $2.23. Minimum wage(mw) was $2.30. That meant for someone working a minimum wage job, it would take them slightly less than an hour's wage to earn a movie ticket. Unemployment in the country was around 6.9% at this time.

1984: The average ticket price was $3.36. That's a $1.13 increase, or a 50% hike. Minimum wage increased to $3.35. That's a $1.15 increase in (mw), or a 34% hike. Unemployment at this time was 7.5%, an increase of 0.6%, or an 8.7% hike in the unemployment rate. 

In this 7 year span, we see an increase in unemployment, and wage earnings increase by 34%, but ticket prices soar by 50%. Indeed, consumers are feeling the pinch. Also notice that with an hour's labor at (mw), a movie goer comes up just a bit short. Ticket prices surpass an hourly wage.

1991: The average ticket price is $4.21. That's a $0.85 increase, or a 25% hike in ticket prices. Minimum wage at this time was $4.25. That's a $0.90 increase in (mw), or a 26.8% hike. Unemployment at this time was 6.8%, a decrease of 0.7%, or a 9.3% drop in the unemployment rate.

This 7 year span seems a bit prosperous. Unemployment is at the lowest since 1977. The minimum wage worker can afford a movie ticket again with just an hour's labor. Still, notice the rate at which ticket prices rise. They seem on par with the overall increase in earnings. Essentially, the pinch is still there because the increase in earnings only slightly overtake the increase in cost.

1998: The average ticket price is $4.69. That's a $0.48 increase, or 10.2% hike in ticket prices. Minimum wage at this time was $5.15. That's a $0.90 increase in (mw), or a 21% hike. Unemployment at this time was  4.5%, a decrease of 2.3%, or a 33.8% drop.

This 7 year span seems very, very prosperous. Unemployment is at an all time low. The rate that wages increase is more than double the rate movie tickets have increased. Finally, the pinch is weakening. Many Americans are working, and wages seem to allow for prosperity. The (mw) earner can afford a movie in less than an hour's work.

2005: The average ticket price is $6.41. That's a $1.72 increase, or a 36.6% hike in ticket prices. Minimum wage at this time is $5.15. That is 0% growth in wages. Unemployment at this time is 5.1%, an increase of 0.6%, or a 13.3% rise in unemployment rates.

This 7 year span we see a turn for the worst. 0% growth in earnings and an increase in people out of work. Yet ticket prices rocket to the top. The (mw) earner now has to work close to 1.25 hours just to afford a ticket.

2012: The average ticket price is $7.92. That's a $1.51 increase, or a 23.5% hike in ticket prices. Minimum wage at this time is $7.25. That's a $2.10 increase in (mw), or a 40.7% hike. Unemployment at this time is 8.2%, an increase of 3.2%, or a 62.7% rise in unemployment rates.

This 7 year span is a bit more hopeful, but ultimately disappointing. Wages increase faster than ticket prices do. Yet the (mw) earner still cannot afford a movie ticket after an hour's labor. Americans out of work is shockingly high.

So, what are the overalls? 

From 1977 to Present (2012), wages have increased by $4.95, or 315%. Ticket prices have increased by $5.69, or 355%. Overall, ticket prices have increased at a rate exceeding the growth rate of income. There are, of course other things to consider. In 1977, 11% of the populous was living at, or below, the poverty line, some 25 million Americans. By 2009, it has increased to 14.3%, some 43.6 million (if the numbers seem off, take into consideration population growth).

In fact, it is said the value of today's minimum wage is 29% lower than it was in 1979. So even if the (mw) increased, its value hasn't. Ultimately, we face a high unemployment rate, and those that are working are working low wage jobs. Yet ticket prices keep on rising. 

So, are ticket prices really ripping us off? Not really. Sure, the margin of affordability seems to be widening, but it's not at an egregious amount. The (mw) worker still labors for about an hour (give or take a few minutes) to earn his ticket. Still, movie tickets seem more outrageous than ever before. Perhaps it isn't soaring ticket prices, but maybe our dollar just doesn't stretch as far as it used to. 

For those curious, in 1977, gas prices were on average $0.65 a gallon. 2012, it has averaged $3.60. That's a $2.95 increase, or 553%. Clearly, gas prices are more out of control than ticket prices.

Editorial on minimum wage, value, and poverty:

Gasoline Prices:

Unemployment Rates

Movie ticket prices by year:

depatment of labor, minimum wage statistics: