Thursday, October 23, 2014

Short Attention Spans vs. Long Movies

I was scrolling through my Twitter feed earlier and thinking about how my relative attention span has changed over the years. Across just about every medium and source, I'm consuming progressively smaller and smaller bits of information. I submit as evidence:

- First, I'm checking Twitter all the time, that's my default source for news and information

- I can't watch TV without a second screen going...reading, writing, whatever, but sitting down and focusing on a TV show with nothing else going on is next to impossible. Sometimes the second screen is actually folding some laundry, but the point holds

- In a car listening to the radio, I'm switching stations every 30 seconds (maybe that's just because music today sucks!)

Regardless, my attention span certainly seems shorter these days - and its certainly something I feel like I hear when the media discusses millennials (leave aside the fact that I may not be one)

So I got to wonder whether that means all our entertainment is going to become shorter and shorter or louder and louder. The short would be to assure people are going to be able to see it all. The loud, well, it's tough to miss.

I you accept the assumption that our attention spans are getting shorter - you would think this would be almost a natural result. You could argue I'm reversing the cause and effect, but I doubt it.

Anyway, this clearly hasn't happened in television, in part because it continues to rely on a forced structure of time slots. Maybe networks could downshift to more 30 minute shows from 60 minute shows, but that really requires a genre change (as most comedies 'can't' be 60 minutes and most dramas 'can't' be 30).

However, there's no reason this couldn't happen with movies. Movies aren't fixed to set running times, so maybe, if people are less equipped to deal with longer entertainment, you could see a gradual shift to shorter and shorter movies?

But if you check - it's actually the reverse. Movies aren't getting shorter, they're getting longer:

Hollywood movies have gone from just under two hours to over 130 minutes.

So what gives?

Well, there's a chance I could be wrong about my attention span hypothesis.

Another possibility, is that the hypothesis holds but it just wouldn't make any money. That would be a more logical explanation to me...

Movie theater chains have been struggling in recent years with attendance declines:

The number of tickets sold fell nearly 11% between 2004 and 2013 and while theaters are growing revenues, they've only been able to do so by raising prices (which is only going to drive more people away from the theaters)

Part of this can be explained by the overall fragmentation of entertainment options. There's certainly a hell of a lot of good TV out there.

But maybe a reluctance to go to the theater is also dictated by the fact that holing yourself up in a theater for 2+ hours, solely focused on one big screen, is really tough for an increasing number of people.

An interesting possibility - and one that would be easy for theater companies to test. I can think of a couple immediate options:

- Test out shorter films...there are always short films nominated for Oscars, but I couldn't tell you the last time I've ever even heard of one
- Test out a place where people can use their second screens

Now, I think one of those is interesting and one is ludicrous. I think allowing people to bring devices in and encouraging their use (maybe lights only get dimmed and not turned off entirely) is completely crazytown...but...I wouldn't let my personal preferences get in the way of an interesting experiment (and I realize this point of view is completely opposed to what I said about watching TV and needing a second screen, but I do like the singular focus of the movies...maybe because I have popcorn)

But if chains are really hurting for more the point where they're investing tons of money in bigger seats, better food, alcohol service...why wouldn't they even think about shortening the movie and lowering the price???

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