In a stellar essay for the New Inquiry, Willie Osterweil examines how changes in US movie theater attendance over the past several years reflect the precipitous decline of mass consumption—an epochal shift in the modern history of capitalism. Fewer and fewer people go to the movies in the US, and those who do not only pay more for tickets, but also encounter gourmet food and plush seats as theaters seek new sources of revenue. At the same time, "indie" cinema is made for an increasingly white and affluent audience, while mass-market movies (e.g., Jurassic World, Star Wars) are designed to appeal to a generic global audience. Here's an excerpt from Osterweil's illuminating piece:
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.
Image from The House That Dripped Blood (1971). Via New Inquiry.