The growth in consumption inequality means more movies are made for the dwindling numbers of top earners
WHO goes to the movies? In America, a reliable answer to that question for the past decade has been “fewer people than last year.” The number of tickets sold hit a 20-year low in 2014. In 2015, Avengers 2, Jurassic World and Star Wars brought a slight rebound, but that year’s sales remained below 2013’s numbers. Nonetheless, theater owners’ and movie companies’ profits keep going up. The way this works isn’t too complicated, of course: Have you tried paying for a movie ticket lately?
Still, to justify continually rising ticket prices, movie theaters have been getting innovative. On a recent visit to my parents’ home in Massachusetts we caught a movie at the local multiplex. I used to love that particular theater because, for at least a decade and a half, its lobby featured a Time Crisis 3 machine, arguably the greatest arcade shooter of all time. But Time Crisis 3 was gone, along with the whole tacky arcade. Its room on the side of the lobby had instead been converted to plush seating and bar tables where you could enjoy the $11 draught beers now on offer at the Bar & Lounge counter next to the concession stand.
Multiplexes across the country have been shutting down arcades and installing bars for a few years now. Rather than try to fill empty seats, they have also been doubling down on lower attendance. Rip out the 150 bucket seats in small theaters and replace them with 45 deep leather recliners, and you won’t even have to hand people RealD glasses to charge $16 a ticket. Add dining tables and waiters, and turn it into an AMC “Fork + Screen” for a “dinner and a movie” experience, and sell them four admissions’ worth of wine and steak.
As for the teens who used to lurk in those arcades, who bought tickets to some trashy adventure flick in order to make out in the back, uninterrupted and unseen, for an hour and a half? Some of them are still cleaning the aisles, even if they’re now peeling Buttermilk Biscuit Poppers and Crispy Shrimp Sushi Rolls off the floor alongside Swedish Fish. But they’re not sitting in the theater anymore; they’ve been priced out. Ticket sales to 12-25-year-olds have been falling much faster than the general decline. And it’s not just the price (or the missing arcades); the whole multiplex environment has become hostile to their needs: The arm rests on the plush recliners are too thick to cuddle across, the swiveling dining tables jab your ribs, and that chemistry teacher who got laid off last year is anxiously hovering above your shoulder, waiting for your food order. More service always also means more surveillance.
Of course, the battle to restrict spaces for teen autonomy, as well as teenagers’ capacity to find a place to get lit, make out, and have fun despite it, is at least as old as movies with sound. Teenagers will always win this particular struggle, and as long as parents, teachers, churchmen, and police insist on escalating, teen victory will continue to come at a horrific cost in drunk driving, sexual assault, domestic violence, and suicide. But the transition of movie theaters away from teen customers, from 150 relatively cheap seats to 45 expensive ones, traces an equally meaningful transition in the purpose and function of American entertainment, culture, and consumerism.
Studies on inequality tend to focus, with good reason, on income and wealth. But marketing, advertising, mass culture, retail trends, and other aspects of society that dominate our day-to-day lives outside work are driven by consumption — the money actually spent on goods and services, not put into investment, savings, taxes or debt repayment — which is reflected only indirectly by income or wealth. Unsurprisingly, inequality in consumption has also increased steadily across the past few decades, though this has happened at a necessarily less dramatic pace than income inequality — sustaining consumer demand is how capitalists recoup the wages they pay out. But a widening class gulf in consumption is beginning to make itself evident in our culture and entertainment.
Indeed, “consumerism” — understood as a society in which consumption growth is the prime motivating factor for companies and individuals alike — is finally being superseded historically. Though the postwar economy saw a virtuous cycle of rising wages feeding rising consumption feeding higher wages — a rising tide lifting most boats — the long crisis beginning in the 1970s saw profits and wages no longer rising in tandem.
Numerous capitalist strategies have been developed in response to this crisis, but none have managed to permanently solve the problem of falling rates of profit. One strategy, broadly called globalization, has been to grow other middle-class consumer bases in national economies outside of the US and Europe. These classes serve as managers and mediators in the more crucial development of efficient global logistics networks and supply chains moving production to sweatshops on the other side of the world.
Another approach occurs in the capitalist heartland itself, blending privatization, austerity, mass incarceration, and union-busting. Union busting and cutting wages — down to literally zero in the case of prisons — alongside job-offshoring produces an underclass who can be made to work in lucrative and highly extractive service economies, while privatizing and cutting state or social services forces people into the market for more and more aspects of their daily survival.
The solution that allowed much of the American “middle class” to not feel the first shocks of this long crisis was cheap credit: first with credit cards, savings and loans, then in dot-com stock market investment, then real estate debt, now, increasingly, medical and college debt. But with each successive debt bubble, the working- and middle class debtors who take it on get less and less consumption possibilities. A credit card can get you into a lot of movies, so will refinancing your house; but it’s pretty hard to go out to the multiplex on dialysis money negotiated with your hospital. Student loan cash might get you to your college town arthouse cinema, but you’ll be paying off that Revenant ticket for a lifetime.
As a result of all this cheap credit, mass consumption didn’t collapse at the same rate real wages did, but, slowly and surely, it has collapsed. By 2012, the top 5% of earners in America accounted for 39% of the country’s consumption, while the top 20% made up 61% of total consumption in America — this is a dramatic increase from even 1990, when they did just over half of American consumption. Meanwhile, the bottom 60% of America make up less than 20% of total national consumption. Of course, that is still a tremendous amount of economic activity, but it is a proportionally small one, and shrinking.
The idea that in the postwar period everyone could participate and be represented in consumer markets was always a myth, but it is novel that, at this point, the vast majority of Americans are actually superfluous to consumption markets. Most firms selling things in America would be committing economic folly to even consider 220 million Americans when taking their goods to market. This doesn’t mean that they won’t do whatever they can to squeeze every last penny out of the hood, the exurb, and the trailer park, but it does mean that the majority of marketers, firms, and production companies don’t even need to pretend to provide things poor or even middle-class people want. Mass consumption is no longer meaningful. Markets aren’t for you anymore.
There is only the upscale market now, and this being reflected in both cineplexes and how the films they show get made. The difference between indie arthouse cinema and Hollywood used to be, simply, whether the movie was made by a major Hollywood studio. But Hollywood studios have fundamentally decentralized, and, like most other capitalist firms today, they are now almost exclusively in the businesses of branding, marketing, and management, while production and distribution themselves are largely franchised, contracted, and outsourced: Today’s studios link money to production houses, talent, special effects units, and distribution deals more than they “make movies” in the traditional sense. As part of this decentralization, the majors all have a number of small, “independent” arms that produce much of the indie cinema that gets national distribution, while a handful of millionaire and billionaire producers, whose business cards just have their own names on them rather than 20th Century Fox, make the rest. The distinction between indie and “major” filmmaking can no longer be made on aesthetic grounds either. Though indies might choose to appear grainy, black and white, or “naturally” lit, advances in cheap camera technology mean that these are usually choices, not necessities giving birth to aesthetic invention.
Indie films are just a market segment for big studios. While most big cities have both multiplexes and an indie cinema/art house or two, an increasing number of films show up in both. Handwringing over the aesthetic consequences of the supposed demise of indie filmmaking is overblown — as Richard Brody argues persuasively, this trend hasn’t been “bad for movies.” But as something that reflects transformations in class composition and ideological subject production, it’s quite significant. When Brody compares the phenomenon of “independent” wealthy film producers to the way that opera and classical music are funded, he touches on exactly the point — the increasingly aristocratic nature of pop-cultural production. Turning from a more chaotic, arbitrary, and of-the-moment mass market-driven production method, we’ve entered an era where one side of the market, namely, Hollywood, is driven by five-year plans and endless franchise sequels, while the other relies on the whims of benevolent aristocrats.
This is hardly a death sentence for art: Much of the history of Western art is merely the reflection of the whims of benevolent aristocrats. But it does mean the end of “mass market” cultural production. Instead, the culture is bifurcated: Indie cinema is increasingly for and about rich, mostly white people — look at the listings of any arthouse theater right now and the majority of the films will be about successful professionals having relationship problems and family drama, at least one of them probably in Western Europe — while Hollywood is for the plebs.
But if Hollywood is sold to the people, it is not about them in the same way that “indie” portrays the concerns and anxieties of its wealthy metropolitan audiences. American “mass” culture is not driven nor produced by appeals to the broadest mass of American consumers. Instead, it is produced by a slow-moving corporate system that makes films culturally nonspecific enough to sell just as well in Shenzhen as in St. Louis. Hollywood has increasingly countered falling North American ticket sales with better showings in global markets, in particular China, and major films are now made explicitly with those markets in mind. As part of this process, they are stripped of whatever cultural, contextual, or historical specificities that might make that sale harder. The universalist, apocalyptic superhero drama, with narratives contained entirely within their own internal universes, is the perfect genre for such a market.
At the moment, dinner-and-a-movie cinemas exist alongside and within older, more teen-friendly multiplexes. But if current economic trends continue, movie theaters will continue to trend against teens and toward affluent adults. The number of seats will go down, while grass-fed, locally sourced burgers with truffle fries, garlic aioli, and a glass of merlot, not buttered popcorn and a medium root beer, will accompany the newest Christopher Nolan picture. The teens, and the rest of us who can’t afford such fancy nights out, will have to find our entertainment in the streets.