Wednesday April 23, 2014

Thoughts on the box office slump of 2011

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The big story from last weekend at the movies was not about the movies on the screen or even what people thought of them. It was about how few people were watching.

Theatre attendance last weekend was terrible all across North America. How bad was it? Really bad. The total domestic box office gross from the movies playing from December 9 to 11 was $75 million dollars.

To put that number into perspective, The Hangover Part II opened to a weekend total of $85 million from May 27 to 29. That's $85 million for one movie, compared to $75 million for all the movies last weekend.

The top two new releases last weekend debuted to especially crummy numbers. The new Garry Marshall ensemble romcom New Year's Eve made $13 million, while Jonah Hill's comedy The Sitter made under $10 million.

Those are not the kind of blockbuster numbers that are going to push the box office upwards. In fact, there hasn't been a weekend this bad since September 2008 as far as the box office is concerned.

The generally crummy box office has been the story so far this latter half of the year. Before the latest Twilight movie, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part I, came out in November, all the talk was about how the box office was in this four-month-long slump. The only other movie all year to open at more than $100 million was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. But then Breaking Dawn opened to $138 million during the Thanksgiving Day five-day weekend in the USA, the overall box office was back up, and people in Hollywood were happy. Now, the slump is back on, and people are in a tizzy over it.

Basically, what needs to happen is for the Christmas releases – the Sherlock Holmes sequel, yet another Alvin and the Chipmunks and the umpteenth Mission: Impossible -- to make a fortune to bail Hollywood out for 2011. Good luck with that.

Now, here are my thoughts on the reasons behind the current slump in 2011. One obvious reason why is --- drum roll please -- the crummy US economy.

I know what some of you are tempted to say: “isn't it obvious?”

Believe it or not, though, there are lots of people who actually think the economy has nothing to do with the state of the box office. You wouldn't believe how many people are out there claiming the theatre attendance is recession-proof. They point to how cheap it is to attend movies compared to other entertainment. They also claim the real reason the box office is down is because the movies out there are no good.

Well, one reason why I say the US economy is having an impact is because the international box office is on track to better last year's numbers, while the North American box office is not. The rest of the world is doing far better economically than the USA is at the moment. Even Europe's doing better, for all their current problems. At least more people there have jobs. The USA, though, is a mess, and that's clearly the explanation for the discrepancy here.

As for the usual excuses about how the box office is bad because the movies just haven't been any good – I'm willing to accept that as one reason why the box office last weekend was so miserable, because the consensus was neither New Year's Eve or The Sitter were any good to begin with.

It doesn't explain, though, why some of these other good movies in theatres aren't doing such a roaring trade.

I point to The Muppets. This family movie is getting rave reviews from everyone and, quite frankly, ought to be just making no end of money. It ought to just be cleaning right up. But it hasn't finished first in a single weekend at the box office in its release yet.

I don't entirely buy this argument that people aren't going to the movies because the movies are no good. Yes, there have been too many sequels. Yes, there is a lot of junk out there. But there was a lot of junk in 2008 and 2009, and people were complaining about the “same old junk” at the movie theaters back then, yet people still went to the movies.

I think there is an underlying reason why the people who kept on saying “yes” to the “same old junk” in the past aren't so willing to do so anymore.

My theory is it's got to do with 3D, and with increased prices in general.

The cost of movies keeps on going up and up. About a year and a half ago a bunch of major chains hiked prices on all the movies being shown by about a dollar. Meanwhile, it costs an extra four bucks on top of all that to go to a 3D movie and wear those silly 3D glasses. It's getting up to $16 or $17 bucks to see these 3D movies. Even a regular 2D movie is over ten bucks these days at a lot of places.

Let's not even get into the ridiculous prices for popcorn, soda pop and other movie food. In some of these places, you even have to pay for parking, too! Plus, for people who must drive in from out of town, there's the sky-high costs of gasoline! It's really gotten out of hand, all these rising costs.

The real problem, though, is there are more and more 3D movies these days. Ever since Avatar rolled out, you've had this major push to roll out every major release in 3D so the theatres can charge these higher ticket prices and make more money. All the blockbusters seem to be in 3D -- the Harry Potter finale was in 3D, the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean sequel was 3D, Cars 2 was in 3D, the third Transformers movie was 3D, Green Lantern was 3D -- you name the blockbuster and you can bet it was probably in 3D in 2011.

Even movie franchises that used to be 2D only, and which quite frankly have no business being in 3D to begin with, are now rolling out 3D releases.

For a good example of that I point to A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas. There is absolutely no reason for Harold and Kumar to be in 3D. This is not a movie franchise based on spectacular special-effects. It's a franchise built on cheap laughs. Yet they made the movie in 3D anyway and added some cheap 3D effects to it, and expected people to pay the extra four bucks to see it.

The worst part of it all is that if a movie is released in 3D, you kind of feel obligated to see it in 3D since that's the way it ought to be seen. But 3D movies cost an arm and a leg to see, and fewer and fewer theatres are being booked to show the 2D versions. You're almost stuck with 3D and the crazy 3D ticket prices whether you want to pay for it or not.

Increasingly, a lot of hard-up movie fans are reacting by saying “screw it! Seeing this movie is a waste of my money, I'm doing something else.”

In general, everyone I know is fed up with the rising cost of going to the movies. People are sick of shelling out extra money for these ridiculous ticket prices.

With the economy the way it is in North America and particularly the USA, more and more people have less inclination to throw money around on movies. The fact that a movie is in 3D is no great attraction to a lot of people. In fact, it's just another turnoff because of the extra money you'll have to spend on tickets.

The bottom line is that people aren't so willing anymore to waste their money on the same old junk like they did before, whether it's in 3D or not. Wallets have been squeezed. That is proving to be the tipping point for North American moviegoers to say “no more” to shelling out endlessly for the movies.

That's my theory on the months-long North American movie box office slump. Coming up soon: my column on why the box office has suddenly gone back up. It never fails.

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