Hollywood accounting has always been a hard thing to follow – if only because studio accountants are more creative than most screenwriters when it comes to their craft. Only in Tinseltown can a film earn hundreds of millions of dollars and still be considered a financial loss.
Studios crying poor isn’t anything new, but we thought that maybe this year they’d spare us the whole “woe is us” song and dance – particularly since this summer saw three films (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides) break the billion dollar mark worldwide. Such is not the case…
Box office attendance numbers for the summer blockbuster season are down for the fourth year in a row here in America and Hollywood finds themselves relying more and more on international box office numbers to balance out the decline at home.
Even with the expanded summer movie season window and the increased ticket prices of 3D features (there were 18 this year, more than doubling last summer’s seven), domestic box office for the May through Labor Day period is up less than 1% from last year. The only good news here is that the summer movies did erase the huge financial hole created by the year’s earlier releases. Ticket sales were down 20% at the close of the first quarter. Now they’re down 4%.
While there’s no definitive answer for why audiences are spending less time at a theater these days, the turgid economy is certainly a major factor. As the effects of a recession that supposedly ended ages ago linger, cash conscious consumers are more inclined to wait for DVD and Blu-ray releases of films rather than splurge on expensive tickets and outrageous concession stand prices. Plus, with the technological advances in home theater set-ups, the “wow” factor of seeing movies on the big screen has been somewhat diminished.
The other, harder to quantify, potential factor has to do with the films themselves. A cursory glance seems to indicate that American audiences are bored with the countless sequels, reboots, and remakes Hollywood has dumped on them for the past few years. Pirates of the Caribbean may have broken the magical billion dollar barrier worldwide, but here at home it made $70 million less than its predecessor. Dark of the Moon, meanwhile, sits $52 million shy of where Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen finished as of this morning.
What this means is that Hollywood is now relying on international box office numbers in a way unlike ever before. In days past, the domestic gross was what mattered and international ticket sales were the proverbial icing on the cake. In the past few years, that paradigm has shifted – rather dramatically.
BoxOffice.com Editor Phil Contrino tells the New York Times, “America used to set the course — if a movie disappointed here, then it was done. That’s simply not the case anymore. America is just another territory now.”
In the short term, that might not seem like a big deal – but in the long run, it could have huge implications in regards to Hollywood product. If America is truly just another market, then studios may start to cater to foreign audiences’ tastes. Could we see Bollywood-esque song and dance numbers turning up in the new Sandra Bullock rom-com so that it appeals to a wider audience in India? It seems possible if Hollywood finds that places like India, China, and Russia are providing a lot of box office cash.
It’s easy to lay the blame for all of this at the feet of the studios for releasing sequel and remake after sequel and remake, but some of this season’s biggest flops were new properties. Cowboys & Aliens got tons of marketing, featured a big name cast, and was an original concept (based on a comic book – an almost guaranteed recipe for success these days), but bombed hardcore. Green Lantern did the same. Original films provided some of the summer’s best numbers, though – X-Men: First Class, Thor, Captain America, and The Smurfs all did well (that last one is baffling…) and the R-rated comedies Bridesmaids and Horrible Bosses also made money (as did The Hangover Part 2).
Taking all of that into consideration, there’s no clear cut answer as to why audiences are avoiding the theater at such an alarming rate. The only thing anyone can be certain of is that the industry wants to stop this trend now, before it becomes an epidemic.