Milos Stehlik, director of Facets Multimedia, has a short-term, feel-good solution to the recession, or, as he prefers, “the Depression. Let’s call it what it is.” Solution: “Put all the bankers in Guantanamo! I don’t know who first said it, but I like it.”
Gallows humor is hanging high for many in the specialty film business. For the shrinking pool of independent film distributors - specialty firms such as Kino International - “nothing these people have ever been through,” says Stehlik, “matches the difficulty of what we’re all seeing now.”
Mainstream fare remains a different story. Multiplex options are a cheap date - the comfort food of the global entertainment business - and in 2008 filmgoers defied worldwide recessionary trends. In the U.S. and Canada, 1.37 billion tickets were sold, down a modest 4 percent from 2007. Overall North American ticket revenue, owing to increased prices, was up 2 percent over 2007. American and Canadian moviegoers spent $9.63 billion in 2008.
Given that in 2008 Americans alone spent more than $21 billion on video game systems, software and accessories, up from $18 billion in 2007, that’s pretty good. (The mail-order DVD firm Netflix, now up to 10 million members, was up 45 percent last quarter.) With “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” topping the January box office two weeks in a row, and Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” chugging handily past the $100 million mark, the new year is off to a remarkably strong start - 13 percent over last January, according to Variety box office reporter Pamela McClintock. “If it continues, it could be another great year,” she says.
Lest we forget, superhero blockbusters “The Dark Knight” (No. 2 behind “Titanic” in worldwide box office, currently at the $998 million mark) and “Iron Man” weren’t simply big.
They were also good.
In Chicago, non-profits such as Facets and the Gene Siskel Film Center are eyeing a challenging fundraising climate.
In the second half of 2008, attendance at the Siskel was up 5 percent (32,000 tickets sold) over the same period in 2007, says executive director Jean de St. Aubin. Popular attractions such as a Muppets retrospective led to a “very strong November,” though that was followed by a tougher December. The bottom line for 2008: earned income slightly up from 2007; contributed income slightly down.
“Some of the people who have been supporting us made sure they gave the same amount,” says de St. Aubin. “The really loyal people are stepping up. But some of the smaller checks are not as forthcoming. ... We’re not feeling complacent in any way.”
Over at the Music Box Theatre, owner Bill Schopf, who also heads the fledgling Music Box Films distribution arm, says 2008 Music Box Theatre revenue stayed flat against 2007. “I don’t think we saw any downturn attributable to the economy,” Schopf says. If anything, he says, the specialty marketplace saw “a glut of mediocre films that really hurt the good ones.”
But he’s bullish on ‘09.
“It’s very inexpensive entertainment, the movies,” Schopf says. “Like beer.”
Meanwhile the distribution company Music Box Films is coming off a strong ‘08: Its French-language thriller “Tell No One” was the topgrossing foreign-language film in the U.S. last year, earning $6.2 million in revenue. “So the Chicago distribution business is good,” says Schopf. “Given we’re the only distributor.”
The hard times, says Facets founder Stehlik, demand quick response. Facets is rolling out a new Web site (facetsmovies.com) designed to keep pace with the Netflixes of the world (though Facets’ sales and rentals predate Netflix by many years).
“Hopefully,” Stehlik says, “we haven’t lost the skills of being fast and nimble and adaptable.”