2010 Box Office: Signs, Portents and Omens

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The 2010 year-end box office tallies are in and it was good news/bad news/worse news/how-much-worse-can-it-get? news for Hollywood.

The good news:

The industry rang up $10.2 billion domestic last year; down a bit from $10.65 in 2009, but still enough to make 2010 the second-best year ever for ticket income.

The bad news is box office was propped up by rising ticket prices, particularly the inflated cost of tickets for 3-D showings (typically $3.00 more than non-3D tickets).  What makes this bad news so bad is that this steroid-enhanced box office haul disguises the fact attendance was down almost 5-1/2% from 2009 to 1.3 billion, the biggest drop in five years and the worst attendance tally since 1996.

The news gets worse the further attendance is backtracked.

After the postwar decline in annual ticket sales bottomed out in 1973 at 884 million, attendance numbers started a slow walk back uphill peaking in 2002 at just under 1.6 billion.  But, with the exception of some marginal upticks, the numbers have, again, been incrementally but surely sliding south ever since.

Worse, as a percentage of the population, the draw of going to the movies has remained more or less stagnant for decades.  Weekly ticket sales have hovered at or below 10% of the total U.S. population for 30 years suggesting that even as the country’s population has grown by about one-third over the same amount of time, movies haven’t been able to expand their appeal beyond a limited demographic slice (point of comparison:  the peak years for movie attendance were 1943 and 1944 with weekly attendance of 84 million; in a country less than half as populous as the U.S. is today, Hollywood was selling three and a half times more tickets).

There were few major breakout hits in 2010 but the big hits hit big with the top 20 releases of the year accounting for approximately 40% of the year’s entire domestic box office.  The falloff from the big winners to the rest of the pack, on the other hand, was quick and steep.

The big earner for the year was Toy Story 3 at $415 million.  Three other movies passed the $300 million mark, another five managed to cross $200 million, and an additional 15 earned their blockbuster stripes with earnings over $100 million.  Forty other releases hit the midrange with takes of $50-99 million (translating as low-budget hits, medium-budget break-evens, and big-budget flops).  The remaining 464 titles released in 2010 made less than $50 million (meaning if they weren’t low-budget releases, they were losers).

So, what does this mean?

The usual curmudgeons will look at the numbers and say what they always say:  Hollywood has to make better movies and more of them, and fewer stinkers.

But a close look at 2010’s chart-toppers suggests Hollywood’s penchant for stinkers may not be the issue.

Using Rotten Tomatoes as an admittedly rough guide, the big earners of the year were hardly all stellar pics.  Only a slight majority of the year’s Top 20 – 13 titles – earned a Rotten Tomato score of more than 60% positive reviews, while three of the Top 10 split critics almost down the middle (Alice in Wonderland, The Twilight Saga:  Eclipse, and Shrek Forever After). Three of the Top 20 – Clash of the Titans, Grown Ups and The Last Airbender – were universally panned, yet that didn’t stop them from earning a combined total of nearly a half-billion dollars domestic.  If clunkers like these could individually out-perform 95% of the year’s movies – including the acclaimed likes of Shutter Island ($128M), The Social Network ($94M), The Town ($92M), The Kids Are All Right ($21M), and 127 Hours ($11M) — making “better” movies isn’t necessarily the answer.

So, again, what does this mean?

The Shrinking Demographic Pie

Since the 1950s, young ticket-buyers have been Hollywood’s high-value targets, but the concentration on younger demographics grew obsessive in the wake of the record-breaking performances of Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977).  Both movies demonstrated the earning power of large-scale action/effects-driven movies with a strong appeal to young males.  Following their lead, the blockbuster – the big-budget big-earning spectacle – climbed to the top of the box office heap and came to define a new era in moviemaking, raised up on the backs of that free-spending young male demo.

It was a workable paradigm as long as the industry was mining the nearly 80 million-strong cohort of Baby Boomers for box office gold.  But the current youth crop – the Gen Xers – number only 51 million, and no one is predicting another Boomer-like population surge any time in the near future.

There may also be another even more challenging dynamic at work.  The bigger long-term problem for Hollywood may not be that there are fewer young people to go to movies.  The bigger problem may be that there are fewer young people who like going to movies.

Any movies.

Evolution

In 2005, the entertainment business was buzzing with the findings in a study by global and consumer research and consulting firm Online Testing eXchange (OTX) which noted that Hollywood’s most valued demo – young males aged 13-24 – were going to the movies almost 24% less than they had just two years before.

The OTX study listed the expected culprits:  increased usage of DVDs and ever more elaborate home entertainment systems, and the rising costs of both tickets and concessions.  But the study also showed respondents were spending increasing amount of times immersed in an electronic playland of videogames and Internet activity.

These findings were confirmed by an MPAA study published the same year showing that increases in DVD usage (almost 53% between 2000-2004) were far outstripped by an increase in time spent on the Internet (76.6%).  Coupled with videogaming, the total hours of annual digital play almost tied those of DVD viewing 71 v. 78 hours.

That was five years ago.

Portable laptops, smart phones, iPods, more advanced videogame systems –  today’s young people are even more deeply submerged in electronic diversion, most of it non-narrative, fast-paced, free-form, self-directed, and immediately available in the comfort and convenience of their own home.

In an interview several years ago, noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle (Hero; The Quiet American) described the emergence of a new, generational sensibility favoring visual experience over textual, and which doesn’t “think in…narrative terms.”

A 21st Century Sensibility

Back in the 1980s, during the Gold Rush days of cable TV, cable programmers noted a new viewing phenomenon:  some viewers, generally young, flipping constantly and endlessly through the cable spectrum.  Programmers called them “cruisers,” and began researching the phenomenon to look into the why’s and wherefore’s behind it, believing if they could learn what cruisers were looking for, they might find a strategy to direct them to their respective channels.

What they found was cruisers weren’t looking for anything.  This was how they watched TV:  settling on a channel only until they became bored or disinterested, then flipping until they found something else which caught their eye, settling again for only as long as it held their interest before moving on.

That was in an era when viewers had only dozens of cable channels to choose from.  Now, the average cable system has over 100 channels, and the Internet… The Internet is virtually limitless.

As the cruising phenomenon showed, it wasn’t only tastes that changed, but media sensibilities as well.

People forget that in the 1930s, writers and publishing houses grew rich turning out the kind of books that today one only finds in English Lit classes i.e. works by Hemingway, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, even the demanding Faulkner.  Forty-fifty years ago, the movie studios, on the brink of collapse, saved themselves with topical, troubling, sometimes intellectually exhausting films like Point Blank (1967) 2001:  A Space Odyssey (1968), Five Easy Pieces (1970), M*A*S*H (1970), Straw Dogs (1971) et al. Forty years ago, CBS rode to the top of the ratings heaps with a string of TV series which made the mass audience laugh while also confronting issues of race, abortion, politics, Vietnam, government misconduct, the changing role of women i.e. All in the Family, One Day at a Time, Maude, et al.

But the networks have since lost half their audience to cable where some of the most popular programs are the likes of Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant, and the generational cohort dubbed Millenials watch only half as much TV as Boomers. The kinds of movies which once stirred the crowds in the 1960s and 1970s have been relegated to a dying art house circuit while videogame releases in the Call of Duty series hit a billion dollars in worldwide sales in a matter of months; a mark only ever reached by a handful of movies.

And people – particularly young people – have stopped reading.

The newspaper business is in collapse, magazines are following them in the same downward spiral, and publishing – though further back –  is being brutally shoved down that same slope.  Studies show Gen Xers read less than any generation before them, and having been raised with a mouse in one hand while texting with the other, have less patience for the demands of the printed word.  It should come as no surprise, then, that the decline in the commercial viability of the printed word coincides with frightening neatness with the explosion in digital entertainment.

Though it’s certainly arguable, it’s possible all these trends might be signaling the rising of a generation for which the narrative demands of even the most chaotic, adrenalin-paced Michael Bay action-fest are more than they care to deal with; an idea in synch with OTX’s findings showing a decline in the number of people interested in the “whole movie-going experience.”

The “magic” of the movies used to be the idea of removing yourself from the familiar to sit in darkness, sharing the experience of willingly giving itself over to the vision put up there on the big screen.

An Xer sits in the privacy of his/her room, the family fridge and pantry stocked with snacks, perfectly content to spend hours Internet cruising, videogaming, Tweeting, Skyping, Facebooking, YouTubing, texting, chatting, ad infinitum…at no cost.  The user dictates the pace, the content, the bathroom and pantry-run breaks.

How is the magic of telling a good story on the big screen supposed to compete with that?

– Bill Mesce

photos courtesy of demotivatingposters.com

1 Comment
  1. swhitty says

    Interesting analysis, Bill, and you make some fresh points.

    A sidebar — while, as you point out, the financial solution may not necessarily be making more good movies, I wonder if not that young males are starting to desert them, the studios might look to other demographics?

    For example, while writing about so called “chick flicks” last year, I looked at a lot of MPAA numbers which seemed to point out that women, particularly adult women, are a big movie audience. They also tend to go to films in groups — and the majority of movies aimed at them are cheaper to make, as they don’t require expensive special effects.

    So why doesn’t Hollywood make more of them? Is it because most of the folks in charge are overgrown adolescents themselves?

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