Michael Bay once said “I make movies for thirteen year old boys, and I make no apology for that.” This may seem to some like a valid defence for his woeful filmography, but my instantaneous reaction was that Michael Bay has contempt for thirteen year old boys. It cannot be a coincidence that the only two films he's made which are even watchable (Bad Boys and The Rock) are not aimed at thirteen year old boys. Moreover, do thirteen year old boys really even want movies that are aimed at them? I doubt it.
This summer the crisis that has been threatening Hollywood for the past decade appears to have finally boiled over (please note that, for reasons of length and reader patience, this article intends to exclusively discuss mainstream American cinema). Audience figures so far for 2013 are down, way down, after a season of extraordinarily tired and tiresome blockbusters. Analysts have begun to call it the “summer of doom”. The blame has been put, basically, on the internet – not just online piracy but also the wide variety of alternatives to cinema which are now available to modern teenagers, from social networking to Youtube, and on reduced consumer spending power as a result of the great recession. Though this may have some validity, I suspect it is only part of the issue.
People will only turn to alternatives to cinema if they see those alternatives as better than cinema. This is where I believe the true problem lies. For almost twenty years now Hollywood has focussed relentlessly on the youth audience. The logic was sound. Teenagers and tweenagers made up the largest proportion of the audience, so it made sense to maximise your potential audience by ensuring that your films were not given age ratings that restricted that audience's ability to see movies. The inception in the 1980s of the 12A/PG13 certificates offered the opportunity to do just that – audiences of any ages could go see the films, yet these movies would be, in theory, not so neutered as to alienate an adult and older teenage audience.
There is nothing wrong with this. 12A/PG13 is a perfect fit for many types of movies – in particular comic book movies. 12A is certainly exactly the right rating for a Bond movie, and it allowed Star Wars to go far darker than ever would have been thought possible when the first movie was released in 1977 (it was also far shitter than anyone thought possible in '77 but that's a different matter). The problem arose when the 12A certificate became mandatory for all decent sized films – regardless of the film's suitability for that rating. When Die Hard and Terminator movies are being watered down to 12A (remember that the original movies were both rated 18 when first released in the UK) something has gone seriously awry.
Though in the short term aiming movies at the widest possible audience seems like a smart move, I believe that falling cinema audiences are, at least in part, the inevitable long term consequence of this approach. As a child of the 90s my friends and I were all cineastes. Go round the playground of my (admittedly all male) High School in the mid 90s and ask the kids what their favourite movies were, and they would reel off a list of 18 certificate movies – Terminator, Aliens, Die Hard, Robocop, Total Recall – that they should never have legally been allowed to see. A huge part of the experience of childhood is learning about the adult world, often illicitly, whilst parents and social authority figures attempt to stem the tide in a battle they know they're losing – that in fact they have to lose because the gradual losing of that battle is how children become adults. Furthermore, we knew that there were films in existence that even adults weren't allowed to see. This was a time when Natural Born Killers, A Clockwork Orange, Evil Dead, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and many other were unavailable in the UK. When we were able to get imported copies of these movies we devoured them, because their very illicitness made them attractive.
In today's society children have access to things way beyond what was available in 1995; things which are infinitely more shocking than anything Paul Verhoeven ever came up with. The internet has transformed our society in ways that we are still coming to terms with, and yet at a time when a click of a button can take children to the most extreme material movies are offering them nothing but safe, unthreatening, bland, inoffensive generotainment. When I was a kid we watched movies we weren't supposed to in order to see things we weren't supposed to see. Today's kids don't have any movies they're not supposed to see, so they go elsewhere for their naughty kicks. Sure, studios didn't make much money in the 90s from my love of 15 and 18 certificate movies, but they made a truckload of cash from me in the longer term through a) the love of cinema those movies instilled in me and b) the fact that I've now bought most of them three times, first on video, then DVD and Blu Ray.
With that in mind, is it any wonder that movies have started to seem less interesting to kids of today? Recent audience figures show that adults are now going to the cinema more than teenagers. I would suggest that is because adults are the only people who remember when movies were still exciting. However adult audiences are also down significantly from their peak, probably partly because no movies are actually aimed at adults any more. Movies used to be the premiere entertainment art form. Now they've been overtaken by television and video games.
As audiences dwindle the problem compounds itself. Studios play it safer and safer, pumping out sequels, reboots and remakes as if there were only 20 IPs in existence. As the movies get ever less interesting the audience dwindles further and the cycle continues inexorably.
Fortunately, there are signs now that times may be changing. Last year's Prometheus was the first R Rated blockbuster I can think of for almost a decade. In two days Elysium, Neill Blomkamp's follow up to District 9, will be released in the States with an R rating (the BBFC have classified it 15 in the UK). The British independent movies Dredd and Kick Ass both went for an R rating, and though Dredd flopped Kick Ass 2 is out next week, again with an R rating. David Twohy and Vin Diesel have opted to self fund Riddick, the second sequel to Pitch Black, to avoid the studio imposed 12A neutering of the franchise that scuppered the first sequel, Chronicles of Riddick.
I will go to see these movies, regardless of reviews, because I want these films to be successful. I want to remind Studios that there is an audience out there for this stuff, and that they were making more money when they made films for adults, because a film aimed at everyone satisfies no-one. I really don't want to walk into a cinema in 2023 and have to choose between X-Men 15, the latest Spiderman Reboot and Batman versus Superman versus Green Arrow versus Catwoman. Most of all, I really, really don't want to not be able to go to the cinema at all in 2023 because the audience has dwindled to the point that cinema itself is not viable.
Vote with your wallets people, it's the truest form of democracy we have.