Nostra-Dave-us Says Theaters Will Be Gone With The Wind

They’re bulldozing several dozen acres of field and farmland in my adopted city, to make way for a new movie 14-screen multiplex. I wish they’d left it to the meadowlarks and snakes. And I’m guessing that before long, Cinemark, the owners, might wish they had too.

This was a thought I had last winter, before the pandemic hit. That problem has only exacerbated what seemed like an obvious problem to me – we’re building an infrastructure for a product which is in its dying days. It’s like building oat stations along the roads for horses in the 1920s.

It’s not like people in our area have an inability to go see a movie, in good times at least. Two large, modern complexes exist at opposite ends of the city of under 200 000 people, with an older in-mall type of discount six-screen theater in between and a trendy, refurbished old one downtown. Long has it been since a local hasn’t been able to see any hot new movie without traveling more than five miles or waiting an hour or two by the time lunch rolls around. Why add 14 more screens?

Here’s my stab at being Nostradamus. Ten years from now, in 2030, movie theaters will be a thing of the past. A dinosaur. Relegated to the history shows, like so many phone booths and railroad cabooses. Which are apt comparisons. There still are phone booths here and there in some cities and out of the way places and CSX still have a caboose or two they use on a few trains that shuttle back and forth on shortlines where it’s impractical to change the locomotives from front to back routinely. But when was the last time you saw either?

I predict that in ten years, big multiplexes will be similarly rare and left in similar disrepair. Oh yes, a cool retro downtown theater or two may survive and thrive offering old movies with craft beers and full menus to nostalgic crowds but the idea of “going out” to the movies on a Friday night and sitting in a sticky-floored crowded theater watching Star Wars, XVII, scarfing down popcorn and washing it down with a $6 soda will be a thing of the past.

The thought was driven home to me clearly this past weekend when everything we seemed to watch on the “boob tube” was inundated with commercials for Greyhound, a new movie with Tom Hanks. Looks like a big story – Hanks leading a convoy of ships across the ocean during the war – and has big stars. The budget for it was reputed to be over $50 million. And it’s going straight to your bedroom via Apple TV. Not to your local multiplex, but to home streaming.

Aha!, my google-loving friends scream. It is going to “TV” but it was supposed to be a theatrical release from Sony, before the pandemic hit. They simply decided it wasn’t worth waiting for the health threat to dissipate to let people see it, so they bypassed the theaters. True. But what if that brings them in a tidy profit? Why bother planning to go the big screen method next time when people seem to prefer the big screen in their home?

Apple already scored a coup when they brought in Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon and Steve Carrell to star in a flagship show for their streaming service. Stars no longer shun “TV” or shudder at the thought of not appearing in theaters.  More and more of Netflix’s content is made by… Netflix. Already their Roma movie won Academy Awards for Best Cinematography and Best Director. Their dreary Marriage Story won Laura Dern both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. The writing is on the wall. Big stars are happy to work for Netflix and Apple; critics and cinema-snobs are starting to accept the made-for-TV works as equals to the traditional Big Screen releases.

All that doesn’t even take into account the Dumbo in the room. The behemoth in the industry is just shifting its gaze to home-streaming too. Disney is starting to make original content for their Disney + service. Think that doesn’t scare AMC and Cinemark? It should. Disney owned the box office in the past decade. A full 14 out of the 15 top-grossing films in the U.S. in the 2010s were from Disney. Universal’s Jurassic World was the only exception to the Mouse House rule. Globally, only three movies have topped $2 billion in box office this century. Two “Avengers” and one “Star Wars” release. Disney franchises both. (And the Star Wars one illustrates another problem for “Hollywood” – people are growing a bit weary of the ongoing franchise. The latest instalment, last year’s Rise of Skywalker took in over $500M domestically. Not bad, but a drop compared to the previous two and down 45% from 2015’s The Force Awakens.) One wonders how long before Disney consider just sending everything to their streaming service, upping the price for that and forgoing the printing of paper posters for multiplexes which cannibalize their home market?

The movie business however, don’t seem to see a problem. Even before the Corona Virus, the number of butts in the too-small multiplex seats was dropping as they kept putting up more and more screens. Deadline reported last year’s box office in North America was $11.4 billion. Not bad at all. Unless you compare it to 2018’s $11.9 B. A 4% drop in one year. They went on to say (around New Year’s before the virus hit) “projections will be down further due to fewer franchises on the schedule” for 2020. In total, 1.239 billion tickets were sold in the States last year. A lot,yes, but also the second lowest number this century and down a remarkable 347 million from 2002.

Yet, the building continues. The number of indoor screens last year hit 40 613, 300 more than the year before and almost 6000 more than existed in 2002, when actual ticket sales peaked. Put another way, on average, 45 000 people filed into every theater in ’02. Last year, 30 500 did. Mind you, ticket prices keep rising in general, to an average of over $9 each last year. Ten years back, it was $7.89. You don’t need a college math or economics degree to figure out which way those graphs are pointing.

When, or if, this pandemic is over, I doubt that number of tickets is going to rise. Fewer were venturing out when times were good; how many will want to go out when jobs are scarce and worries remain about anyone coughing within a hundred-foot radius? When a 26” TV with built-in speaker was a luxury, there was plenty of reason. When more and more people have 60” screens and surround sound in their own living room and the soft drinks aren’t setting you back five bucks a pop, what is the appeal?

I’ve been wrong before. But mostly, when it comes to business, I’ve been wrong in underestimating how much impact anything and all things digital will have. Around 1990, I couldn’t see that home computers would ever be more than a prestige, niche market with no relevance to the average person. In 2005 I thought Amazon might challenge Barnes and Noble but no woman would pick out her clothes without going to try them on, let alone order fresh veggies online. In 2007, my boss at a now-defunct camera store still thought digital photography was a passing fad. I didn’t, but didn’t think people would ever be happy to take photos of meaning, let alone keep them, on their phones.

The popular theater of 2030 is going to look a lot like your living room of today, with a bigger TV in it. Maybe take a photo or two of one soon, to show your grandkids. Good news for meadowlarks and snakes of the future, perhaps.

You Can Toy With This Museum

Disney likes to say that Disneyland is the “happiest place on Earth.” If indeed the happiest place is in Anaheim, the runner-up may be in Rochester, NY… The National Museum of Play, which includes the Toy Hall of Fame.

Many of us probably had no idea there was a Toy Hall of Fame, but hey…if everything from bowling to darts to aviation having their own, why not something that “play” such an important part of most of our childhoods?

The Toy Hall of Fame is a part of the Museum of Play, which began in the 1960s as “The Strong” – the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum of Fascination. The 156 000 square foot building has added exhibits and wings since and in 1998, someone had the idea for the Toy Hall. They aim to recognize toys which are icons, being widely recognized and remembered; exhibit longevity and promote learning or discovery. They give bonus points for those which are seen as “innovative.”

The first year, they inducted 11 toys which are about as classic as they come: baby dolls, Barbie dolls, Crayola crayons, erector sets, Etch-a-sketch, Frisbees, Lego, marbles, Monopoly, Playdoh and teddy bears. Since then they’ve added in some 57 more including Atari game systems, Big Wheels, checkers, Dungeons and Dragons, GI Joe dolls, Gameboys, rubber ducks, and View Master. A handful of more “out of the box thinking” toys have made it in too, like blankets and sticks!

The newest additions last year were the Magic 8-ball (it could’ve told you it’d be in if you asked it!), Uno and pinball machines. This year they’ll add two or three more from a list of nominees including Jenga, Care Bears, coloring books, Risk, Matchbox cars (which you might recall, if of a certain age, actually were sold in “matchboxes” at one time), the Fisher Price corn popper, and most controversially, Smart phones. I’d never heard of the corn popper, but recognized it as soon as I saw it, the little push-along on wheels developed in 1957, which the Hall says was not only fun but promoted motor skills and curiosity.

I’ll be pulling for the coloring books and Matchboxes (the racier Hot Wheels already made it in), parts of my childhood memories to be sure. I think back to my childhood and the toys I remember mostly, that I spent the most time with and got the most out of were toy cars like Hot Wheels and Matchboxes and Lego. Sometimes they’d go together, with me building buildings and driving the little cars between them. I loved the futuristic designs and bright metallic paints on the Hot Wheels , which could be raced on their trademark orange tracks as well, but also loved the realism and attention to detail of the Matchboxes. Although it bothered me immensely that they weren’t all to scale. A giant dumptruck or Greyhound bus Matchbox were the same length as a Volkswagen or Ford Capri. I rationalized that the Greyhound should have been about three times as long, because… well that’s the type of four year old I was!

I particularly liked Lego. Lego back in the ’70s was a bit different than most of it today. I mean, sure the bricks snapped together and came in bright colors as they still do but back then, they just came in big assorted boxes. I loved using my imagination to put together houses of my dreams, with the windows and doors where I wanted, the architecture my choice. Many a cold winter afternoon was spent building up houses, towers or cities of the future on the living room floor.

There weren’t any Batman or other cartoon character Lego people and there were basically no blueprints. No rules or limits. When I pass by the kdis sections of stores these days, the Lego kits are all very detailed and specific. build this car or this spaceship or that home with the bricks in this box. Not one brick too many or too few, just follow the instructions. It bothers me that today’s kids, if they actually step away from the electronic screens long enough to pick up a Lego set, will have so little incentive to use their imagination.

Now, learning to follow instructions is important, no doubt. But so too is thinking independently and creatively. Using one’s imagination. Flights of fancy. I learned to follow rules and instructions just fine through school, family life, even toys which required careful attention to detail, like plastic models of trucks. Would be silly to have had the transmission on the cab roof or headlights on the back of the frame, after all. But I’m convinced toys like Lego helped me imagine things and create, tear down what didn’t work and feel proud of what did. those skills have made me a part of the person I am, the writer part, the photographer part. Probably the “interesting” part actually!

What about you, dear readers? What toys were important to you when you were a kid? How did they help you become who you are today.

I can only wonder if today’s youth will look back as fondly on Fortnite or Vine videos four decades from now.

Squad 51 Changed TV…And Society

TV shows are of course, first and foremost entertainment. But once in awhile they rise above just that and can actually create change for the better. Maybe even save lives. Recently, I’ve rediscovered one such show… and a lot of memories from my childhood!

Over-the-air station COZI-TV shows nothing but oldies. It’s the television version of a Golden Oldies radio station. Andy Griffin, Magnum PI, MASH… they’re all there. And recently, a fave of eight, nine-year old me, Emergency.

Emergency was the brainchild of Jack Webb, no surprise to those who had watched his earlier show, Adam 12. While that one watched the day-to-day routines of two L.A. cops, Emergency dealt with an L.A. fire station and the goings on within and on their runs. In particular, the show which ran from 1972-77, focused on two paramedics who although firemen, responded to medical calls and were trained in medical care.It was a very new idea for the public at the time. Roy Desoto (actor Kevin Tighe) was the blonde, easy-going one while his partner who set many a lady’s heart a-flutter (and would later be immortalized in a Tubes song) was John Gage, played by dark and brooding Randolph Mantooth. The rest of the firemen on their shift at “Station 51”, as well as the doctors and nurses of the local hospital ER were supporting characters. A plot outline not unlike Adam 12, with its two patrol car cop buddies who spend a lot of time discussing life and responding to nuisance calls interspersed with a few high-tension emergency calls.

On Emergency, we follow along with John and Roy as they deal with mundane, everyday issues like John’s insomnia or Roy’s wondering about where to take his kids on holiday, interspersed with a few siren-screaming runs to heart attacks and snakebites , and fewer still infernos to respond to and help people survive. Of course, like Adam 12, it was full of afros, moustaches and conservative morality… youth smoking “grass” laced with pesticides freaked out and confounded doctors with their life-threatening illnesses; doctors jumped in to keep lying parents from their frightened and bruised children while doling out counseling about dealing with stress. (It did, however, coming a bit later than Adam 12, miss out on stripy bell-bottom fashion and bad guys who said things like “you’re a jive cop!” or “say your prayers… I’m gonna send you to pig heaven, copper!”)

Part drama, part light-comedy, mixed with a small amount of action… it’s a far reach from the action shows and movies that are in favor now. But somehow, it worked. We cared about the characters lives… and learned.

Emergency was made by sticklers for detail. The exterior shots used a real L.A. fire station (Station 127 in Carson) and a real hospital nearby. Producers got to borrow an authentic L.A. pumper truck (Engine 51) and apparently, on a few shots forgot to relabel it as such, meaning the eagle-eyed viewer could sometimes see Station 51 responding in a differently-numbered truck. Driven by an actor, Dick Hammer, who played Dick Hammer. You see, Hammer not only used his real name, he played his own role in real life – he was an actual L.A. fireman, thus having fire training and a license to drive the large vehicles.

Roy and John, the paramedics, went to their medical calls in a modified pickup with all sorts of medical supplies, and radios to the hospital. The trucks were new and few and far between and L.A. couldn’t loan them one, so the show got the blueprints and built an authentic replica themselves, and stocked it with the real equipment the true first responders used in the day.

It was interesting. It gave us a look at the ordinary work of fire-fighters and paramedics and some of the crazy calls they had to deal with. And in a small way, it changed the world.

Not only did Emergency pave the way for later, more action-packed shows like E.R. and Station 19, it changed society as well.

ME TV point out that when the show first aired, there were only 12 – one dozen – fire departments with paramedics in the entire country. L.A., Seattle and Miami were the only notable large urban areas with them at the time. What’s more, ambulances were largely taxis for sick and injured people. The personnel on them did little besides get the patient to doctors and help down the road. By the end of the show in mid-’77, fully half of all Americans were within 10 minutes of responding fully-trained paramedics. Lives were saved…. and one has to imagine that Emergency was behind it. It’s hard to innumerate, but oral history suggests a lot of fire departments and city councils got on board to train their firemen and supply them with medical gear when people started wanting their town to have its own John Gage, Roy Desoto and Squad 51. EMS World call Randy Mantooth the “goodwill ambassador” for their profession and point out “for all the popularity of classic shows such as the Honeymooners and Gunsmoke, the number of people they inspired to become bus drivers or sherriffs was probably small.” Not so Emergency. Schools offering the training to be paramedics saw a surge of applicants shortly after the show premiered.

Pretty cool. A show that changed history and made life safer. And still is interesting to watch 40 years on. Methinks we’ll never be saying that about the Kardashians.