Thoughts on the box office slump, Part II

John Cairns

Since I had nothing better to do in the office today, I thought I would do a follow-up on my previous column the great box office slump. Like any movie, my column deserves a sequel, too.

The Christmas four-day box office numbers are now in and the relief that the major studios had sought from this slump does not appear to be there, as the box office pretty much posted about the same numbers as the year before. What happened was the box office went down for the first two days and then rebounded for the last two to post a small increase. Everyone was hoping the Christmas period would be a blockbuster that would bail out Hollywood for the year, with Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol leading the way with a domestic gross of $44 million.

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It wasn't a bad weekend, but not a great one either - not one capable of salvaging the year, that's for sure. So all these stories about the great Box Office Slump of 2011 are still out there.

I was reading what Roger Ebert had to say about the whole situation at his website. He had listed out his theories about why things were so slow this year.

He pointed to six things in particular. Two of them were the same ones I had talked bout - the rising ticket costs, plus the ridiculous costs of concession food.

But he had four additional theories which were interesting: the lack of a must-see mass market movie (an Avatar or a Dark Knight); the theatre experience being not so great (fighting crowds of annoying fanboys and girls and the texting-addicts at the movies); competition from other forms of delivery such as internet streaming; and a lack of choice (lack of indie, foreign or documentaries at the cinemas).

I suppose the first and last points can fall under the category of the "same old junk" theory that I talked about in my previous column. People are just getting the same old junk and sequels all the time.

Certainly the lack of a must-see movie like Avatar made a difference in 2011. Avatar made almost $750 million in its domestic release, a large number to be factored into any equation.

Still, there were several movies out there that were being billed as, and could have been, "must-see" movies in 2011: the finale for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, part 2, Transformers:Dark of the Moon, the Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, and Hangover II.

While they did make a lot of money at the box office they did not do the kind of numbers that an Avatar or a Dark Knight did. Part of the reason is that those two movies were pretty exceptional in their own right. Avatar was the first major movie in a long time to really devote itself to giving audiences the total 3D experience in its portrayal of the planet Pandora. This was James Cameron's masterpiece and audiences responded to it in the same way they responded to his previous record-box-office hit Titanic. The Dark Knight, too, was an exceptional movie, featuring the late Heath Ledger's compelling final performance as the Joker.

My point is that a movie elevating itself to "must-see" status must have something fresh and exceptional going for it. But the supposed "must-see" movies that Hollywood was pushing this year were nothing special, at least nothing on that scale. How many Harry Potter movies have there been, for example? How many Transformers and Twilight movies have there been? And we didn't need another Hangover movie, that's for sure. Most people say the sequel wasn't that good.

As for Ebert's points -- I think it's a valid point to make that there was no must-see movie this year on a grand scale like Avatar. Still, those types of movies don't come along very often anyway, and people have been flocking to the "same old junk" at movies for years on end.

His point on the lousy theatre experience at these noisy, fanboy-ridden theatres is well-taken. But again, this situation has been going on for years. You'd sit there in the cinemas with all these noisy kids, waiting for all these ads to end so you can watch a movie - and for many of you uncool folks, might I ad these ads seem aimed at anyone but yourself. They are clearly aimed at the hip and cool people.

There's also nothing new about the lack of foreign films, indies or other options for theatergoers at the cinemas, either, or with cinemas having to compete with other delivery systems out there. The theatres have contended with people opting to stay home to use Netflix and the rest of them for a long time - not to mention illegal downloads.

What I will agree with that all of these are major contributing factors with respect to what is going on right now. People were clearly tiring of watching the same junk at the same old annoying multiplexes. Ironically, I think the major studios and the theatre people realized this situation was getting to be a big problem for them. If they let this go on, people would simply stay home. The gravy train was going to end eventually if things didn't change.

That's why you ended up with so many movies in 3D in 2011. 3D was supposed to be this big answer to all these problems, this big saviour of the industry. It would be fresh and new, and would encourage people to go to theatres because they couldn't get this 3D experience at home watching some TV, DVD player, or Apple invention. It would enhance the cinema moviegoing experience, it was thought.

It backfired. The theatres were still crowded with the same annoying kids, for one thing, and there was still a lack of choice at cinemas. To make matters worse, the 3D experience simply wasn't that good a lot of the time. Often, the 3D would be something tacked-on in post-production after the film was originally shot in 2D.

The "3D experience" might have worked for Hollywood if they weren't so darned greedy about it and didn't charge the arm and a leg for these 3D glasses in the first place. Then maybe people would have seen it as something of an added bonus and would have been more inclined to show up as usual.

Instead, people rightfully saw it as a money grab. It became an additional disincentive to go to the movies, on top of all the other reasons.

That's why I still point to these awful jacked-up 3D ticket prices as the main culprit behind the Great Box Office Slump of 2011. The reason behind the slump can be summed up in a single word: greed. Hollywood got too greedy for its own good and opted for a quick-fix 3D solution when they needed to do a whole host of things differently -- starting with the product they put into theatres, for one thing. Reducing prices might be another idea. Hey, it seems to work for the retail industry.

That is the end of my ranting on the movie slump, part 2. Oh, and we can surely add this last point to the list: no more sequels. People clearly are fed up with them, too.

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