The VCR--the videocassette recorder--hit the market only a few years ago at upwards from $1,000. By now they can be had for less than $300, and there seem to be cassette rental shops on every corner.
What is obvious is that the continuing upsurge of VCRs in use must do some eroding of the theatrical motion-picture audience--and also of the number of home viewers watching other forms of television.
Coincidentally, A. D. Murphy's most recent authoritative survey of film box office in Daily Variety concludes that this summer's admissions were the lowest in five years, 10% off from 1984.
It may be only a coincidence. These days, box-office figures can be considerably affected by one runaway hit that the customers go to see more than once and possibly several times, as they went to see "Jaws," "Star Wars" and "E.T." in its first release, for example. Repeat business, in fact, is evidently now the difference between the hit and the blockbuster hit.
There were some solid hits this summer, notably "Rambo" and "Back to the Future," which may fight it out for the year's top money honors, plus "Cocoon," "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" and some others. But Murphy reports that an estimated 85 million fewer tickets were bought this summer than in the peak recent year, 1983.
The lack of a "Star Wars" or another megahit was no doubt a factor in this summer's ease-off. But I have to suspect that the VCR was an important contributing factor.
My own feeling has been that the theatrical motion picture, in its constant war with television, has two last battlements defending it: It is still the great American date, and there is no substitute for the experience of watching a film out of the house, on the big screen, in a comfortable darkness shared with other people.
But after I'd said as much earlier this week at a talk before University Women, a support group of the University of Judaism, a mother confronted me in the foyer, shook her head and said, "It's the VCR date now, my friend. At $6 each to see a movie in Westwood, even teen-agers don't want to spend that kind of money. For $12 they can rent two or three movies and have a party at the house."
Having just spent $6 to catch a matinee showing of "Kiss of the Spider Woman," I saw her point. Variety's Murphy puts this summer's average price at $3.60, up from $3.44 last year. It can probably be proved that ticket prices haven't risen more than the cost of milk or corned beef, but $6 in the afternoon is a fat price, especially in a world of vivid distractions.
The conventional wisdom among exhibitors (who are a good deal more affected by VCRs and other aspects of television than the product-makers) has been in recent years, I think, that patrons eager to see a particular film will pay whatever the price, whereas those who don't give a hoot about that film can't be lured to see it by any bargain price, or free popcorn or trading stamps.
This is probably true in part. The evidence is that people go to a movie these days, unlike the pre-television days when you went to the movies, plural, as a habit. Then again, until very recent times the exhibitors weren't competing with VCRs, as well as with "Cheers," "Hill Street Blues" and "The Cosby Show." It's an ever more competitive world.
It has struck me before that the motion-picture business as a business is its own form of death wish, or Russian roulette, courting disaster--almost soliciting it--by embracing dubious conventional wisdom, or none at all.
The success of "Cocoon," like "On Golden Pond" in its year and others ("An Officer and a Gentleman," "Chariots of Fire" and "Back to the Future," for examples) that have attracted mature audiences as well as young audiences would seem to suggest a few home truths.
One is that the movies are tied to their 24-and-under demographics at least partly because they have made them a self-fulfilling prophecy. The number of intelligent and entertaining films addressed to audiences who (in Wolcott Gibbs' caustic phrase) are capable of reading without moving their lips is still smaller than it should be. A part of the potential audience (the fastest-growing segment of the population at the moment, in fact) is under-appealed to, despite the indications that it will turn out when the product is right.
That seems folly, and so does the general lack of aggressive price-merchandising at a time when the VCR folks are on the hustle, and the film producers themselves, with their own hunch where the future lies, are rushing the cassettes to market closer and closer to the theatrical release dates.
The film-loving consumers, of course, have a real stake in all this, if only because of their passionate conviction that the cinema is the place to see movies. But there is a real if subtler factor at work as well: Films made with theater showing in mind have a scope and scale and a kind of specific gravity, a density of color, texture and action that you simply don't, or hardly ever, find in films aimed at the small screen.
The slumping box office isn't good news, and you don't have to be an exhibitor to believe it.