Hollywood Scrambles to Fix a Fading Link to Popular Culture ; Executives Plan Strategies to Offset Shift toward TV, Tablet and Phone Viewing

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After the shock of the decline last year in domestic movie ticket sales, Hollywood has landed in a pool of angst about movies and what appears to be their fraying connection to the pop culture.


On Feb. 24, Hollywood will turn out for the Oscars.

But it's starting to feel as if it might be "The Last Picture Show."

The Academy Awards ceremony next year -- the 85th since 1929 -- will be landing in a pool of angst about movies and what appears to be their fraying connection to pop culture.

After the shock of the decline last year in domestic movie ticket sales, to $1.28 billion, the lowest since 1995 (and attendance is only a little better this year) film business insiders have been quietly scrambling to fix what few will publicly acknowledge to be broken.

That is, Hollywood's grip on the popular imagination, particularly when it comes to the more sophisticated films around which the awards season turns.

Several industry groups, including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which awards the Oscars, and the nonprofit American Film Institute, which supports cinema, are privately brainstorming about starting public campaigns to convince people that movies still matter.

That seemed self-evident only a few years ago. But the mood has turned wistful as people in the industry watch the momentum shift toward television. Even the movies' biggest night will feed that trend: The Academy has lined up Seth MacFarlane, a powerful television writer-producer, as the host of the Oscars.

"Shakespeare wrote his sonnets long after the sonnet form fell out of fashion," James Schamus, a screenwriter and producer who is also the chief executive of Focus Features, noted in an e-mail last week.

George Stevens Jr., the founder of the American Film Institute, said he would not descend "like Cassandra," with a lecture for members of the movie Academy, when he accepts his honorary Oscar at their Governors Awards banquet on Dec. 1.

"I think they will find their way, but it's a time of enormous change," Mr. Stevens said. He spoke by telephone last week of his concern that a steady push toward viewing on phones and tablets is shrinking the spirit of films. In the past, he said -- citing "A Man for All Seasons," "8," and "The Searchers" -- there was a grandeur to films that delivered long-form storytelling on very large screens.

But the prospect that a film will embed itself into the cultural and historical consciousness of the American public in the way of "Gone With the Wind" or the "Godfather" series seems greatly diminished in an era when content is consumed in thinner slices, and the films that play broadly often lack depth.

As the awards season unfolds, the movies are still getting smaller. After six weeks in theaters "The Master," a 70-millimeter character study much praised by critics, has been seen by about 1.9 million viewers. That is significantly smaller than the audience for a single hit episode of a cable show like "Mad Men" or "The Walking Dead."

"Argo," another Oscar contender, had about 7.6 million viewers through the weekend. If interest holds up, it may eventually match the one-night audience for an episode of "Glee."

The weakness in movies has multiple roots. Films, while in theaters, live behind a pay wall; television is free, once the monthly subscription is paid. And at least since "The Sopranos" sophisticated TV series have learned to hook viewers on long-term character development; movies do that mostly in fantasy franchises like the "Twilight" series.

And a collapse in home video revenue, caused partly by piracy, drove film salaries down. Television, meanwhile, raised its pay, and attracted movie stars like Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, Laura Linney, Claire Danes and Sigourney Weaver.

Ticket sales for genre films like "Taken 2" or Mr. MacFarlane's broad comedy, "Ted," remain strong. …


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