Hollywood vs. VR

Let us all take a moment to celebrate the remarkable resilience of Hollywood. As “the music industry finds itself fighting over pennies while waving goodbye to dollars,” to quote the New York Times; as the publishing industry finds itself increasingly eclipsed by Amazon; as “the number of people watching TV is falling off a cliff,” as Business Insider puts it — movie box office just keeps rising.

From strength to strength: “Revenue from the American box office grew by 6.3% in 2015, to a record high of $11 billion. Thanks to droves of new filmgoers in China, where the market grew by 49% last year, global revenues increased by 4% to $38 billion,” calculates The Economist.

Now, it’s true that these headline figures paper over serious problems. DVD sales, once a major source of income, have sunk to irrelevance. Production and marketing costs have skyrocketed as the movie biz moves into Extremistan, relying on a few big hits to make money, squeezing out the middle class of mid-budget movies. “The top grossing films each week accounted for 33% of total box office in both 2015 and 2016, almost twice the average of 18% that prevailed in 2011-13,” according to some grim analysis on Variety.

But there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with Extremistan. The multiplexes are still full of new movies every week, some of which are actually good, and more importantly, moviegoers still keep flocking to them. (Including yours truly; I see probably 40 movies a year in theaters.) Granted, higher ticket prices mask the fact that slowly rising box offices mean slowly falling attendance, but the growing worldwide audience, courtesy of capitalism’s remarkable ability to make poor nations richer, will more than make up for any slow secular decline in the West. So far so good…

…but what happens when the VR age hits?

The zeitgeist seems to have declared 2016 the dawning of the age of virtual reality. On the one hand, this is incredibly exciting. VR is to flat screens as color-with-sound is to silent-black-and-white; at least one quantum leap, maybe two. We’ll have to develop — we’re already beginning to develop — whole new vocabularies of “virtual literacy” … and whole new forms of storytelling that may have more in common with video games, and immersive theater like Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, and Third Rail Projects’ Then She Fell, than traditional screen narratives.

But whither the traditional, beloved movie theater in such a brave new narrative world? What need will we have of a place to congregate to watch stories when the projections end a few inches ahead of our eyeballs, and we cannot see or hear those around us? An excellent Aaron Levie piece in Variety quotes Jeffrey Katzenberg: “It seems that all the zero-sum thinkers should reconsider their math… throughout this history, in not one instance did a new form a mass media replace an earlier form.”

Levie’s larger point — that technology is the friend, not the enemy, of Hollywood and all forms of cinematic storytelling — is absolutely true. But I note that very few people go to see silent black-and-white movies any more. (I happen to be one of them, but trust me, we’re a minority.) Hollywood, in the sense of an enormously popular and influential industry that performs and projects stirring stories for vast quantities of money, will thrive. But very little of today’s Hollywood infrastructure will … including, I’m sorry to predict, movie theaters, or the notion of “first-run” box office.

This will take years, of course, and will be a slow, staged process. At first VR will seem a fad; then only for hardcore gamers; then perhaps VR “arcades” will arise, a la the video-game arcades of the 80s; and only then will movie theaters be seriously threatened. But it’s hard to envision a future in which that does not happen.

Again, this is no bad thing! The systems and stories that supplant and replace today’s will almost certainly be superior. But Hollywood’s braintrust had best bear in mind at least the possiblity that VR’s most enthusiastic boosters are actually underestimating its appeal … and movie buffs like myself had best brace ourselves for some wrenching farewells.