The Big Picture Is There Is No Big Picture

Lincoln Journal Star: The mass audience in the United States is splintering and dividing into ever more specialized and personalized niches.
In the 1940s, more than half of all Americans went to the movies at least once week. In the ’50s and ’60s, the most popular television shows were seen in more than half the households in the country.
Today, despite unceasing hype and advertising, an average week sees around 10 percent of us going to the movie theaters.
In 1947, the peak of the studio system, 90 million Americans out of a population of 151 million went to the movies each week, according to “The Big Picture,” a book on the changing economics of Hollywood by Edward Jay Epstein. That figure represented 60 percent of the population, who bought a total of 4.7 billion tickets that year.
In an average week in 2003, less than 12 percent of Americans bought movie tickets. The total number of tickets sold in the U.S. in 2003: 1.57 billion.
That downward spiral has become the subject of much media attention. Summer 2005 was a huge box office disappointment. According to box office tracker Exhibitor Relations, this summer’s $3.6 billion total is down 9 percent from 2004. Even worse, attendance slumped by 12 percent.
Home video and other auxiliary sales (per-per-view, pay cable, network TV and basic cable TV) have become the profit center for movie studios.
According to Epstein’s figures, in 2003, the six major studios spent $11.5 billion to produce, publicize and distribute 80 films under their names and spent another $6.7 billion on 105 films from their “independent” subsidiaries, such as Miramax and New Line.
The studios recovered just $6.4 billion from their share of world box office, leaving them $11 billion in the red after their movies had completed their theatrical runs. But they more than made up that $11 billion gap on DVD sales, which totalled $33 billion worldwide in 2003.

About David Burn

Co-founder and editor of AdPulp. I wrote my first ad for a political candidate when I was 17 years old. She won her race and I felt the seductive power of advertising for the first time. I worked for seven agencies in five states before launching my own practice in 2009. Today, I am head of brand strategy and creative at Bonehook in Portland, Oregon.


  1. Thanks for this post. I’m using it to illustrate how the media market has diffused on almost every level. A tip to it is posted on my blog (“Much Ado About Marketing”) for today (11/09/2005).
    Thanks for the informative post.
    Mike Bawden
    Brand Central Station

  2. Segmentation has never stopped, and a lot of it has been driven by what technology can offer consumers. What this is part of is an even greater trend begun by the first romantics—now that we can “own” (more correctly, license) a movie on DVD, the cinema continues its slide into becoming more defunct. Yes, it remains a special night out, and cinemas are right to have more luxurious surroundings to entice us there—but they are becoming more “tourist attractions for locals” when DVDs offer similar potential clarity and the chance to pause, rewind and allow for bathroom breaks.
       Possible reversals to the trend will include a sense of community, one which we marketers predict at the beginnings of each decade, but we have so far been wrong. The ’80s were meant to be less selfish than the ’70s, and we were wrong. The ’90s had the same selfishness but with a politically correct bent. The 2000s have begun with the same individualism. American consumers, in particular, seem caught up in the idea that they are the stars of their personal TV shows, as though The Truman Show were real for them, and products and services have continued to treat them accordingly. Only if a sense of community returns—the opposite of the behaviour exemplified by Fear Factor or Survivor contestants—will we start seeing a reversal, or at least a realization that our individual, selfish “personal stardom” is a farce in the big picture.
       I don’t advocate for a second that we all dress in the same Mao suit or see the same movie, but there are many things which we have in common. The idea of “world peace”, for instance, is common throughout most of our 6·5 billion, but we just aren’t at the same stage in our respective countries to demand that of our leaders. I still hold hope for the internet as a uniter, for the wind-up $100 laptop for developing countries, and sufficient people wanting to help their fellow human beings, but to achieve this we need to change our thinking from “starring roles” to “supporting roles”—something which will take a bit of a societal shake-up to kick off. Sadly, 9-11 didn’t manage to unite the world beyond October 1, 2001, so it makes you wonder.
       Perhaps there will be that one great movie, or that one great movement, that will speak to every person deeply. Or, maybe the cinema will simply have to adapt to our ever-segmenting tastes, become venues for digital entertainment, and develop new technologies where small booths see the movie of their choice, on larger-than-TV screens—an intermediate step before we become engaged in virtual-reality experiences.