The scores of footprints in front of Grauman's Chinese Theatre chronicle Hollywood's history. What David Gale witnessed inside the auditorium on a recent evening may help predict the industry's future.
As the head of MTV Films, Gale was at the theater for a research screening of his "Jackass: Number Two," a crude teen comedy coming out next month. The film had just started when a teenager seated next to Gale began pecking away on his BlackBerry.
"It was an amazing experience. My first instinct was to slap him," Gale said. "But then I realized he was just enjoying the movie."
In fact, the teenager was e-mailing a friend, recounting the movie's best jokes.
"The kid was just doing what kids do," Gale said. "This is how they watch movies. This is how they consume entertainment. And when they like something, they let people know."
For decades, the movie business has followed an inflexible formula: Produce features, show them first in theaters, release them on video, then broadcast them on television. But what Gale observed -- and what a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll of teens and young adults has found -- is that Hollywood's rickety model is poised to be torn apart.
With an array of devices competing to fill their leisure time, today's teens and young adults show diminishing interest in adhering to Hollywood tradition. They're willing to watch brand-new movies at home rather than in theaters, are starting to use their PCs as their entertainment gateway and are slowly turning to their iPods and cellphones for video programming.
They still crave to be entertained, but not necessarily inside a movie theater.
Poll respondent Kim Boyko, an 18-year-old student in Colonia, N.J., said in a follow-up interview that she found herself watching more movies at home on a computer, on TV or on DVD. "I'd much rather have the comfort of my own couch," Boyko said.
For years, theater owners and movie studios have argued about the timing of home video releases. The people running the multiplexes want to keep the wait period between theatrical debut and the DVD's first day on sale -- known in the industry as a window -- as long as possible. The studios have been pushing to shrink that gap (it now averages about 20 weeks) to minimize the need for two separate advertising campaigns.
The poll found that many teens and young adults would be happy if that window were eliminated altogether. Asked where they'd prefer to watch a new movie if it were simultaneously available at home and in theaters, about a third said they would choose to stay at home, and another third said it depended on the movie. Going to movies at theaters still has appeal, particularly for younger teens, but among respondents ages 21 to 24, 56% said they wanted to see the new movie at home, and only 9% said they would rather travel to a theater.
Based on the box-office popularity of many critically savaged films, it should come as no surprise that teens and young adults care little about what reviewers think. In deciding what to see, their friends' judgments are the ones that matter. Those opinions are sometimes spread instantly, with almost a quarter of teenagers and young adults sharing their opinions during or right after the movie.
"It used to be that we could get people to see movies that weren't worth it because they didn't have so many other things to do," said Laura Ziskin, producer of the "Spider-Man" movies, whose latest installment is slated for next summer. "Now, you have to be a hit even before you open."
Younger audiences, Hollywood's most enthusiastic consumers of pop culture, are seeking out new types of programming and technology, though they're not ready yet to watch short films on their cellphones or video iPods.
Nearly half (47%) of respondents ages 12 to 17 say they would watch a movie on a PC, well above the interest in doing the same on a cellphone (11%) or video iPod and similar devices (18%). A similar share of those 21 to 24 said they would watch movies on a computer, although they are much less willing to do the same on a cellphone (6%) or video iPod (7%).
As for the movies themselves, some complained about the selection. "I'm going to fewer movies that I actually enjoy," said Maria McGinley, a Ventura County 16-year-old. "One of my friends wanted to go see 'Little Man,' and I said, 'No way!' "
No matter the device employed, entertaining the nation's teens will be tough. Although the youngest kids polled (12 to 14) say they are seeing either as many or more movies than a year ago, 3 in 10 teens ages 15 to 17 are seeing fewer. The distaste for the multiplex accelerates as children become young adults; 44% of those ages 21 to 24 are seeing fewer films. The Times/Bloomberg poll findings mirror a recent study by the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which found an even sharper drop-off over a five-year span.