Should Moviegoers Be Voting with Their Wallets?

A common platitude that’s seemingly everywhere these days (not just at the movies) is that consumers should be voting with their wallet.  After all, movie theaters are corporations.  Their end-game is, and always has been, the endless accumulation of profit.  The argument goes, then, that every ticket sale that they don’t make at the box office is that much less for them in profit.  It’s a zero sum game: every dollar that you don’t give them is one that they lose out on.

But is that really how the movies work?  I mean, it’s not like you’re stiffing the local mom and pop shop that needs every last dime they can scrounge up to make rent by the end of the month.  This is an international mega-corporation.  They Produce movies for hundreds of millions of dollars, spend just as much advertising them to the public, and increasingly measure their intake by billions.  How much does your $10 movie ticket really affect their bottom line?

That’s a little more complicated of an issue, to be fair.  On the one hand, you want to voice your approval (or disapproval) for the actions of these mega-corporations, but on the other hand the sheer magnitude that such companies operate on naturally resists any individual action.  And when you start talking about Disney – which owns not only the world’s most pre-eminent animation studio, but its own lead competitor in Pixar, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, Fox, Fox Searchlight and more besides that – things get even crazier.  They accounted for a majority of the movie industry’s earnings back before the Fox merger.  And now?  You don’t even want to know.

And that’s not even taking into account the fact that oftentimes movies aren’t even what’s driving profit here: merchandising is.  Although you might be more focused on the bells and whistles of a new stand-alone or crossover movie – the ins and outs of complex character relationships, villain motives and who’s punching who and where – these corporations are already eyeing up the real prize at the grocery store.  From Avengers-branded serial to tie-in macaroni, from toys and video games and pot holders to backpacks and t-shirts and air fresheners, the real money being made is outside of the movie theater.  The so-called “main attractions” that people pay $10 and a bucket of popcorn to see at the local multiplex is little more than an add for the $100 worth of merch you’re going to buy before and after the show.

Synergy isn’t just some corporate buzz word: it’s the entire model upon which the intersecting industries that these mega-corporations own operate under.  Much like the MCU – where every movie is a sequel, prequel or midquel to every other movie and the ad-cycle is self-perpetuating as each one movie invests you in at least five others – so to is a company like Disney focused on making all of its interconnected brands work for them.  Movies provide the context for why you want to buy their top-of-the-line shampoo, dish soap, lint roller and ready-made cookie dough.  It’s all one big ouroboros of capitalism.

I’m not knocking the system.  Clearly (at least in this case), it works.  Disney is a well-oiled machine that is practically printing money on demand at this point, and their every product acts either as a print-ad or three-hour commercial for their every other product.  It’s an ugly yet beautiful system for this ugly yet beautiful world.

So let’s take a look at one scenario I’ve actually seen a lot on social media leading up to the release of Avengers: Endgame later this week.  You have a group of movie fans who are upset over the Disney-Fox buyout (and rightfully so).  They are concerned about what this near-monopoly of the film by Disney means for them as a consumer.  They are upset about Disney shutting down key divisions at Fox that are responsible for producing amazing movies like Hidden Figures (2016) and The Hate U Give (2018).  They are angry about how the concentration of resources in an individual studio like this will result in less and less ambitious movies being made by them as they continue to seek that endless, self-perpetuating profit that comfortably fits into their preexisting business model.  They’re afraid about what kind of future something like Fox Searchlight will have under a Disney-branded regime.

So what do they do?  Well, pretty much the only thing that they can do in order to get Disney’s attention: they boycott the biggest movie that they can find – in this case, Endgame.  They refuse to buy tickets to see it opening weekend, hoping to send a message.  But the thing is that that’s not going to affect anybody’s bottom line.

Endgame is sold out: has been for a while, actually.  I don’t just mean one movie theater, I mean the entire weekend.  There are reports of people selling their opening-weekend tickets for $2000 on Ebay because demand for them is so high.  Some AMCs are going to be screening the movie 24-hours a day to keep up with the demand.  Even the theaters near me – which don’t get nearly the kind of business some of these others do – are at least extending their business hours to accommodate 2:00 AM showings of the movie.  The last Disney movie that people tried to boycott was Captain Marvel (2019), and that’s already made over a billion dollars at the box office.

It’s time to face facts, voting with your dollar is nice in theory – and sometimes the principle is what really counts – but these kind of outrage protests simply don’t work when your Eggo Waffle tie-in commercial makes $2 billion in profit on its lonesome.  The world simply doesn’t work that way anymore.

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