Tom Schatz

Photo Credit: Leah Rushin | Daily Texan Staff

Franchises have been around since the early days of film. The “Flash Gordon” and “Adventures of Captain Marvel” serials dominated the cinematic landscape in the 1930s and the 1940s, respectively. 

The most anticipated pictures of 2015 are the next “Star Wars” and the new “The Avengers.” These films have stories and spectacles that attract wide audiences. Smaller films have been around for a while, too, but their place is shrinking. 

Studios once funded a multitude of deep, adult-oriented films. They allowed directors Francis Ford Coppola (“The Godfather,” “Apocalypse Now”) and William Friedkin (“The French Connection,” “The Exorcist”) to make the movies they wanted, even though the films didn’t target a broad range of demographics.

Studios are reluctant to green light smaller films because they don’t have wide appeal. Director Steven Spielberg (“Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial”) struggled to create “Lincoln” because of lack of studio support, while Coppola had to self-finance his pictures with his wine business. 

Radio-television-film professor Tom Schatz said studios tend to fund recognized blockbusters over original stories because every film release is a gamble.  

“We’re getting to a point where the production and marketing costs of modern big blockbusters are in the $400 to $500 million range,” Schatz said. 

The low price of film tickets means studios have to coax as many people to see their pictures as possible in order to make a profit. 

The domestic box office, defined as theaters in the U.S. and Canada, is the film industry’s primary market. Studios, generally, try to release their films on as many domestic screens as they can.

However, studios also need to rely on the international box office to make a profit in case they don’t make enough money domestically. 

For example, last year’s “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” cost about $435 million to produce and market but only made $203 million domestically, but it grossed $709 million worldwide.  

The average film ticket costs $8.30, according to Box Office Mojo. 

Studios invest more money in previously successful franchises because there is less risk involved. Familiar titles catch public attention and have established themselves in
the marketplace. 

Big studios are so focused on producing blockbusters that they have sacrificed funding for smaller pictures. The big studios had 15 indie divisions 10 years ago. Today there are only three: Fox Searchlight, Focus Features and Sony Pictures Classics. 

Studios are also reluctant to support original blockbusters. 2013’s critically-acclaimed “Snowpiercer,” a sci-fi action picture, was a commercial flop because The Weinstein Company was not confident enough to give it a wide release.

Studios are limiting filmmakers’ creativity. It is less likely today for a director to make a great drama on the level of “The Godfather” or even a new franchise comparable to “Star Wars.” As a result, film won’t be an exciting medium because it lacks originality. 

Schatz said many talented filmmakers have moved to television in response to the film industry’s lack of support for mid-range and low budget films, citing director Steven Soderbergh (“Traffic,” “Ocean’s Eleven”) as an example. Soderbergh was able to produce “Behind the Candelabra” for HBO, proving that filmmakers could express their voices on the small screen.

Unless studios decide they should value artistry over a quick buck, they will remain reluctant to finance pictures that don’t have mass-market appeal. The modern cinematic landscape is an unforgiving one, but smaller films and original blockbusters can survive the franchise onslaught if their creators play their cards right. 


Sally Bejarano helps stock the shelves of I Luv Video with new movies for rent. The store has managed to stay afloat in the Netflix and Hulu era through offering locals a wide variety of lesser-known films that online video companies lack.

Photo Credit: Andrea Macias-Jimenez | Daily Texan Staff

With Blockbuster filing for bankruptcy last year and closing about 900 of its stores, it may come as a surprise that local video stores such as Vulcan Video and Waterloo Records & Video are still able to keep in business.

“Nationally, the trend is for brick and mortar stores to close,” said Vulcan Video north manager Greg Nance. “We’re still hanging in there.”

And with more and more consumers opting to join Netflix, Nance can only hope that people will continue to do their business with him.

Advertising senior Laine Higgins enjoys browsing the selection at Vulcan and talking with the staff about the recent rental he just finished. But after joining Netflix five months ago, Higgins found himself frequenting Vulcan Video less and less.

“The guys at the store thought I went out of town for awhile,” Higgins said. “If I were ever to go to Vulcan while I had the account, it was because it was so much faster than waiting for a DVD in the mail.”

Last week, Netflix increased the price of its streaming plus DVD by mail plan from $9.99 to $15.98, a 60-percent increase. Consumers can now choose between two plans. One allows them to stream both a selection of movies online and keep one DVD (or more) at a time. The other plan allows customers to just stream Netflix’s online movie library. The raise in price has many consumers like Higgins dropping the DVD portion of their plans.

“It is going to cost about the same to go back to Vulcan, which is much more convenient than waiting on DVDs in the mail,” Higgins said.

Waterloo Records manager Kelsey Wickliffe disagrees that locality is the key to video store success. “I’d like to think there are some people that just like to support local,” Wickliffe said. “It seems less and less these days.”

But radio-television-film professor Tom Schatz disagrees. He said he believes Vulcan has managed to survive due to its ability to understand the Austin film community.

“The Austin art scene is intense,” Schatz said. “But Vulcan’s selection has been steadily growing, and it is identifying areas that Netflix is not touching.”

Computer science senior Alex Ingraham opts to rent from Vulcan when he wants to watch a foreign film or movie that Netflix doesn’t have.

“They have an interesting collection of bizarre VHS films that never got made into DVDs,” Ingraham said. “A lot of them were made in Austin, and it’s fun to look through them.”

Those who choose to downgrade to the streaming option on Netflix may notice a thinner library. Starz, a premium cable network, will pull its content from Netflix in March due to a disagreement over its contract.

According to Wickliffe, it is Waterloo’s wide selection that has customers choosing their store over Netflix. “We have things in stock that simply aren’t available on Netflix,” Wickliffe said. “For the avid moviegoer, we are still a good option.”

But Wickliffe said that Waterloo’s DVD sales are slowly declining. “It’s the sale of used merchandise that really keeps us afloat,” Wickliffe said. “But even used DVD prices continue to go down and down and down.”
Schatz said that DVDs are becoming obsolete just as VHS did before it. He worries that local video stores will fail to make the changes necessary to adapt to new technology.

A variety of other options are drawing consumers away from video rental stores. Hulu Plus boasts a partnership with the Criterion Collection, a selection of classic films. Another option, video on demand, allows cable customers to order new releases from their television. Redbox has also proven to be a convenient option. Located in front busy stores, customers can rent new releases by the day.

But for now, Schatz commends Vulcan on its success. “It’s a mom-and-pop operation that’s local and consumer friendly,” Schatz said. “There’s value there.”

No one really knows what the future has in store for the movie rental business, but Nance believes there will always be people who prefer to rent.

“As long as Austin will keep supporting us,” Nance said, “we will stay in business.”

Printed on September 6, 2011 as: Local video stores buck national trend