Some Worry Slump Foretells Movie Biz Changes

Despite such summer box office smashes as George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" and Steven Spielberg's "War of the Worlds," moviemakers are concerned: Box office receipts have lagged behind last year's totals for most weekends this year.

"I don't remember more anxiety, a bigger sense of uncertainty in this business in the 25 years that I've been doing it," said Walter F. Parkes. He and his wife and producing partner Laurie MacDonald have produced such hits as "The Ring" and "Men in Black." Their latest movie, "The Island," directed by Michael Bay, opened last weekend.

"There's been so much talk about the slump," Parkes added. "I think the question that is in everybody's mind is, 'Is this a temporary state of affairs that came about as the result of a number of pictures that didn't work, or are we looking at some kind of fundamental shift in the viewing patterns of the audience?' "

It's talk of that shift that has Hollywood feeling fretful. For while a few summer films have struggled -- like the crusading epic "Kingdom of Heaven" and the well-regarded "Cinderella Man" -- some are more worried that the availability of recent movies on DVD is keeping people away from the multiplex.

"There's a great deal of concern in the industry about the so-called window between the time that a movie is released and the time the DVD comes out," said Peter Bart of Variety. "That window has been six months. Then it went to four months. And now, it's roughly at three months."

The window shortened because of piracy concerns -- with new movies turning up on bootleg DVDs around the world -- and because of the desire to avoid funding two separate marketing campaigns for the same project.

Short Window, Long-Term Trouble?

But for a summer movie business that's based, in part, on repeat viewing of big-budget pictures, a short window can spell long-term trouble.

"Blockbusters depend on repeat business," said Laurie MacDonald, Parkes' wife and co-producer. "But I think that because you know that you can quickly see it on DVD, or because of pirated DVDs, that yeah, the interest in going again and experiencing it at the theater, given the cost, is less. And that's certainly affecting summer movies."

It also may be getting more comfortable to watch at home. There's been an uptick in sales of home theater systems, and some complaints that theaters are playing too many ads before showing the movie. A recent AOL/Associated Press survey claimed 73 percent of people prefer seeing films at home.

"Long run, sure, fewer people are going to go to see movies at theaters," Bart said. "More people are going to have home theaters and are gonna buy DVDs, long run. But I think what's happening is everyone is jumping on this long-term trend and trying to prove it's happened already."

Moviemakers placing nine-figure bets on summer entertainments are also feeling spooked by the way new films are moving at the speed of buzz -- getting wider releases theatrically, but mere nanoseconds in which to click with audiences.

"Go to LAX and look at the runway, there's a plane coming every 60 seconds," said Robert Dowling of The Hollywood Reporter. "They're all lined up waiting to take off. Same thing with films: They're lined up like a runway. A movie is lucky if it gets two weeks of uninterrupted, of uncompetitive pressure from another film."

Sleeper to the Rescue?

But there's always a summertime surprise, a smaller film, like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," whose success becomes a testament to screenwriter William Goldman's movie biz dictum that, "Nobody knows anything."

This summer, it's "March of the Penguins" a documentary narrated by Morgan Freeman, that's boasted one of the highest per-screen average earnings in the country, and expanded into more than 500 theaters last weekend.

"It's the age-old thing that everybody wants to have," Dowling said. "And that is, it's a movie that seems to have hit the right nerve ending and the word of mouth, which is the most important marketing vehicle known to humans."

As Hollywood endures what's been a chilling summer, it looks to the fall and winter holidays for box office relief from films including the fourth Harry Potter film and "Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong."

'People Want to Get Together'

Still, most continue to believe that even the technologies of the future won't make watching movies in theaters a thing of the past.

"I just have an inkling we may have to adjust the way we make movies, our budgets, the amount we spend on marketing, how we get them out to that public," MacDonald said, "but that ultimately, people want to get together and sit in that dark room and laugh and cry and, you know, have that experience."

ABC News' Chris Connelly originally reported this story for "Nightline" on July 25, 2005.