Multiplexes were originally envisaged as a way of expanding choice, but are now being dominated by a handful of titles, argues Len Klady.
When Garth Drabinsky opened the first Cineplex in Toronto back in 1979, the idea of having 14 viewing options under one roof was looked on with a combination of excitement and scepticism. There were obviously kinks to work out - the size of the auditorium, rear projection - but it's clear his template took less than a generation to become the norm.
At the time, Drabinsky talked about this experiment as the democratisation of movie-going. Films would no longer have to make it in large theatres - they could find success in smaller venues that would be within their budget range. And, logically, that would shepherd a wider array of films into the marketplace and develop all sorts of niche audiences.
It's difficult to think of another game plan that went so seriously off the rails and still wound up being a fabulous success. The modern multiplex, regardless of screen count, plays a finite number of movies (usually in several auditoriums). It has arguably been the single biggest factor in solidifying a mainstream that has virtually no interest in expanding the core film-going crowd.
One couldn't find a better example of how the audience has been conditioned to accept a handful of viewing options than this season.
Imagine for a moment that you live in one of the 11 major international movie markets - Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Russia, Spain and the UK. Now take a look at the top three most popular films in those countries last weekend.
Obviously, split bills aside, theoretically there could be as many as 33 different films. The reality is that six films - Die Hard 4.0, Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, Ocean's Thirteen, Ratatouille, Shrek The Third and Transformers - show up 26 times and, of the seven remaining slots, only Black House in South Korea and Persepolis in France are local productions.
The paucity of popular choices, no matter where you reside, wouldn't be so alarming were it not for the fact they suck up so much of the energy in the marketplace.
The top three titles in Mexico accounted for 79% of ticket sales, while in Italy the trio cornered 65% and in the UK it was 83%. In none of the 11 territories was the figure less than 63%, and it topped out in Russia with a jaw-dropping 94%.
The domination of event films
You might be thinking that such dominance is the norm and to a degree that is correct. It certainly occurs during peak holiday periods when an event film such as The Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter or a James Bond instalment is released.
But the weekend of July 6 - 8, for example, wasn't a celebration in any of those 11 countries and it's extremely rare to find a few films dominating to this degree in all 11 territories simultaneously.
The trend won't take anyone working in this area of the business by surprise. It's been one of the most widely discussed issues since the May onslaught of sequels.
However, it's occurred faster and more ferociously than anyone could have anticipated. During the comparable weekend of 2006, the top three films in France accounted for 46% of ticket sales compared with a current level of 63%.
Three other countries were at percentages below the 63% that is the current low-point, and in only two instances were levels higher last year than they are now.
Again, it wouldn't seem so dire if overall these juggernauts were expanding movie-going. But even with a string of record-breaking debuts, fewer people have been buying tickets in nine of the noted countries.
You do the maths - (Ocean's) 13 plus (Fantastic) 4 plus (Die Hard) 4.0 plus (Shrek) the 3rd just doesn't add up.