The Declining Box-Office

In a recent issue of Time (January 16, 2012), in The Culture, writer Richard Corliss highlighted a few facts about declining box-office revenues and offered a few potential contributing factors.  According to the snippet, revenue was down nearly 5% in 2011 with attendance at the 1992 level.  The highest gross of a film in its domestic run (Harry Potter) was less than the most popular video game day-one sales (Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3).

Corliss takes to five points on why this may be happening:

  • Seasonality of movie-going – what must be an apparent change from before, films were most successful between April and Labor Day.
  • Demographic changes – Apparently young men found substitute entertainment, while women and customers of 40 were doing more than their share.
  • Traditional stars aren’t pulling crowds – Corliss looked at the films with actors that usually draw large crowds – and found few of them in the top 20 for the year.
  • Sequels are sagging” – Oddly enough Corliss acknowledges that the year’s top seven films were sequels, but then explains he add this point because none of this years originals are likely to lead to a sequel.
  • Cartoons are crashing” – According to Corliss, five of the top ten films in 2010 were animated, but only one of the top films in 2011 was.

Now, when I sat down to write this post, I wanted to mention this article and throw out my own thoughts on why people aren’t going to the movies.  But having summarized it, I’m not sure I really agree with what it has to say.

  • The seasonality point could be true and is easily verified in data. Fair enough, but I’d sure like to understand how dramatic of a change this really is.
  • Demographic changes – again, potentially an interesting change, but not clear from what is provided that it is a leading cause in the decline.
  • Stars don’t pull crowds – Okay, this one I have a hard time going along with.  Certainly yesterday’s clear stars won’t necessarily be favorites tomorrow.  The stars that Corliss looked at have been around awhile – why not look at current and younger actors that have popularity? Most everyone I know asks about films in this order: Name (what movie?) Cast (who’s in it?) and Log line (what’s it about?).  WHO is in a film is always going to matter. And it usually needs to be a recognizable name – stars.  I’m tempted to follow-up this post with a double-click on some of this data.
  • “Sequels are sagging” – If we just ignore the fact that the author highlighted – that the top 7 films were sequels – and turn our attention to the potential for sequels, my issue isn’t so much that I disagree (e.g. I’m not going to name a 2011 film that I’m sure will have a sequel), but it is that movies should not fundamentally be written and produced for that potential.  So, while this may be true, I don’t think it’s for the reason the author states.  One factor I will talk about below, is that consumers of entertainment are wiser and do not want to be thought of us long-term revenue streams.  That said, if a story is good and it makes sense, there is obviously evidence that sequels can be popular.
  • Animated features – This is the point that I find the hardest to believe in.  Animated features take a very long time to create, and it seems like a very competitive space, in that many times you see look-alike films coming out about the same time, and certainly competing for family dollars at peak periods mean trying to have something out there before the other studio.  With so many coming out in 2010, it would make sense the pipeline was a bit dry for 2011.  And, once again, I point to the obvious, that there will always be kids that want to go to the movies, and a certain age group that prefer animation.

From a regular Jane point of view – I point to the movie-going experience itself as a problem for box-office struggles.  I mean, sure, I get that more and more people have 60″ high-definition televisions and sources in their homes, but the movie theater still provides an important place in activity and entertainment for a large number of people.  The top complaints I hear from would-be-movie-goers aren’t that they’d rather stay home, it’s that the experience isn’t meeting their needs.

  • The cost – The cost for a couple or a family to go to a primetime movie is ridiculous. Anywhere from $10-$20 per person, just for a ticket, means just to show up and view the movie is going to cost you $20-$80.  That price point puts the activity into some serious competition from other activities.  Once you add in the unreasonably priced food and beverages, which average $10-15 per person, you are up to $50 for a date and as much as a whopping $120 for a family. For what is on average a 90 minute activity! Ouch!  Especially when you consider it might be likely that people who want to go to movie theaters are those that cannot afford fancy in-home-theaters or don’t have their own homes yet.
  • Food and drink options – While it has taken our country a while to start coming around to truly healthful eating, and it still has a long ways to go, it is already true, in my experience, that the traditional snacks and beverages are losing popularity.  The amount and nature of the calories found behind that lobby counter are all wrong!  Theaters need to change more quickly.
  • Location – Because movies have moved away from the many neighborhood theaters and to massive movie-plexes, many of my friends have to look at driving 20-40 minutes to the theater.  And many of my friends prefer art and international films, which usually only appear in one or two local theaters in downtown Seattle.  I know many people in my little part of town would love a one or two screen theater that we could just walk to.
  • Selection – In general, think it’s time that Hollywood stray a bit from its magic formulas.  Today’s consumers are wiser and demand more uniqueness from the subjects of their attention.  Continuing to re-run storylines and depend on obvious gimmicks simply won’t work as well, any more.  That said, I think that every time a theater dedicates 2-4 of it’s theaters to the hit-of-the-week, they are reducing selection for the larger movie-going population.

I do think movies are doing a couple of things right in adapting to today’s consumers:

  • Reinventing – In recent years I have seen several 21+ and/or ‘gold service’ theaters crop up and they seem to be popular.  IMAX, 3D and 4D options have increased.
  • Flexibility – I remember when you couldn’t plan on going to a movie until mid-afternoon, at the earliest.  Now, there are usually plenty of times to choose from, including early morning for family features.

In the end, I feel that Corliss’ article isn’t well-grounded and generates more questions than it answers.  But, reading that article, and writing this post, has made me a lot more curious about the patterns and changes of theaters and consumers over the years, so look for more on this topic in the future. It is an important one for screenwriters to consider.

– April

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