Long-term prospect for film industry: Fewer moviegoers?


Hollywood is plenty nervous. And it's not just because the movie studios have a couple of billion dollars on the line with this summer's movies. Or because the first two weekends of the summer season at the box office didn't exactly create fireworks.

Underneath any immediate optimism about the box-office boost that "Jurassic Park" and "Last Action Hero" could lend to the summer is a real anxiety about the continuing decline in the moviegoing audience -- specifically the all-important 13- to 25-year-old segment:

* Year after year, the film industry sees a steady erosion in the number of movie tickets sold. Last year, 964 million tickets were sold -- the lowest since 1976. The high mark came in 1984 when there were just under 1.2 billion admissions.

* This year, through May 31, using a conservative measure, the number of tickets sold has fallen to 329 million, compared to 350 million for the same five months in 1992.

* A million fewer tickets were sold this Memorial Day weekend, compared to ayear ago.

A number of industry executives attribute the recent downturn to the recession. Some say it's the higher cost of going to the movies, or the cheaper alternative of renting a movie to watch at home.

But the pervasive theory is that young people, ages 13 through 25, who historically make up the core of the moviegoing audience, are not going to the movies as frequently as they used to. The young moviegoer, who typically goes to the movies 12 times a year, is no longer the largest segment of the audience. That age group has been surpassed by a baby-boom-generation moviegoer, age 25 to 50, who typically goes to the movies only four times a year.

As box-office analyst Art D. Murphy put it during an interview: "If you follow that demographic line, you'll eventually follow an industry into Forest Lawn."

Mr. Murphy, who writes for Daily Variety, acknowledges that one reason for the decline in younger moviegoers is their shrinking portion of the population. But he contends that it's a minor point.

"The fact is that young people in 1983 accounted for 55 percent of all tickets sold -- way above their proportion of the population. In 1992, they accounted for 38 percent of the tickets sold," he said, citing statistics from the Motion Picture Association of America. Meanwhile, according to the U.S. Census, the percent of persons under 25 has fallen by only 4 percent from 1980 to 1990.

Hollywood's top movie executives are trying to figure it out. Tom Pollock, chairman of MCA Inc.'s motion picture group, which includes Universal Pictures, said, "We are nervous about it. That's why we cut our costs 25 percent. . . . But there's really not much you can do about the changing of the nation's demographics, except to try to make better movies."

Former 20th Century Fox chief and now independent producer Joe Roth said the young audience has become one "that you can only count on as part of the overall audience for big hits. The really dire way of looking at it is that this is the first generation that seems to have lost the tribal rites of going to the movies every weekend."

Mr. Roth suggested that other diversions are attracting the 18-25 group. "They see the video rental market as their weekend activity. . . . This is the first group that grew up with video games."

Mr. Pollock predicts that the film business will not be a growth industry for the next two or three years. And, absent a few variations depending on films, the business will erode and then will get better as the 13-to-25-age group is expected to grow larger.

In the meantime, he said, Universal is hoping to continue to attract a young audience by offering many family films and films that overlap in audience niches. "With 'Jurassic Park,' we're trying for a broad audience. . . . I wouldn't spend that kind of money on a movie if we were only going to get a teen audience or adult audience."

One tangible example of what happens when young people stay at home is "Cliffhanger," the mountain-climbing action film starring Sylvester Stallone. On its opening weekend, it virtually had the action/young male audience all to itself and yet it seemed to fall short of industry expectations, even though it had the biggest Memorial Day weekend opening of any non-sequel. Off the record, some in the business attributed it as possibly Stallone's lack of appeal among young audiences or that, perhaps, the concept of a bigger-than-life hero has lost some appeal.

Noting a 12 percent drop in admissions to people ages 12 to 29 in the last two years, Columbia Pictures Chairman Mark Canton, in a speech earlier this year, said the industry's challenge is to make films "that appeal to the growing audience of older Americans."

Doing that is fine, said Mr. Murphy. But, lately, he believes movies have been too focused in their appeal to adults. They are turnoffs to the younger set.

Part of the problem, as Mr. Murphy sees it, is that baby boomers are in charge of production. "They are making films about baby-boom Angst because they understand that. All the while the twenty-something group and teens are amusing themselves with Nintendo.

"Basically, that means it's a lost generation for the movies. Because the older they get the less they will go out anyway."

Several executives in production and distribution said the attempt is being made to make broader appealing films with stars that appeal to multiple age groups (like "Indecent Proposal" with Robert Redford, Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson) or, for instance, white and black audiences (like "White Men Can't Jump" with Harrelson and Wesley Snipes).

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