the candler blog

2011 Box Office in Review

Biz, Movies

The door on 2011 is closing. Now that most of our “best of” lists are out in the open, it’s time to talk about the year’s box office. The chatter all week has been about Hollywood’s weak ticket sales, at their lowest since 1995. What’s amazing is that one of the generally ignored metrics, actual tickets sold, has come to the fore this year. This is a great development since inflated (engorged, really) ticket prices make revenues an impossible metric to go by anymore. How many people saw a particular movie? Now there’s a measurement that never goes out of style.

Unless about half the U.S. hits the multiplexes today, our fate is sealed. So why are fewer people going to the movies?

In the New York Times, Michael Cieply places the blame squarely on the preponderance of sequels and reboots at the box office.

So far the top seven pictures at the domestic box office have been sequels, an alignment that appears unmatched in movie history. […] The strong opening for “Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol” suggests that it may well join a list that also includes “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” from yet another film series, in the ninth position. If “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” or “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” gain traction, the year’s entire Top 10 may turn out to have been sequels…

The glut of franchise pictures in theaters has become a perennial complaint, but is it really all that new of a trend? Ticket sales have been on a steady decline since 2002, with the only glimmer of hope in that time being 2009 (aka Avatar and Transformers 2 year). I’ve pulled and modified a chart from The Numbers analyzing the top grossing films of the last 16 years. Bolded films are sequels.

Year Top Grossing Film (Bold=Sequel)
1995 Batman Forever
1996 Independence Day
1997 Men in Black
1998 Titanic
1999 Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace
2000 How the Grinch Stole Christmas
2001 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
2002 Spider-Man
2003 Finding Nemo
2004 Shrek 2
2005 Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith
2006 Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
2007 Spider-Man 3
2008 The Dark Knight
2009 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
2010 Toy Story 3
2011 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II

Hmm, I did say ticket sales have been on the decline since 2002 right? Consider that the last time there were this few tickets sold, the number one film was Joel Schumacher’s nipply addition to the Batman franchise. One could even make the argument that George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was more of a reboot than a sequel, perhaps even an adapted or re-imagined work. If that’s the case, then look at the chart again. We see a bleak 1995 with a threequel on top, then a steady rise in sales on new work. Once the age of sequels revs up, ticket sales start going down again. Wouldn’t it seem obvious, then, that they’re a bad investment?

In his article, “I’ll tell you why movie revenue is dropping…,” Roger Ebert tries to lay out in plain English what he thinks is wrong with the movie industry. Unlike Cieply (and me), Ebert refrains from blaming the quality of the films being made.

Ticket prices are too high. People have always made that complaint, but historically the movies have been cheap compared to concerts, major league sports and restaurants. Not so much any longer.

So let’s talk about ticket prices.

Average US Ticket Prices*
Year Avg. Ticket
% +/- Adj. for
% +/- Adj.
1995 $4.35 N/A $6.46 N/A
1996 $4.42 +1.61% $6.37 –1.39%
1997 $4.59 +3.85% $6.47 +1.57%
1998 $4.69 +2.18% $6.51 +0.62%
1999 $5.08 +8.32% $6.90 +5.99%
2000 $5.39 +6.10% $7.08 +2.61%
2001 $5.66 +5.01% $7.23 +2.12%
2002 $5.81 +2.65% $7.31 +1.11%
2003 $6.03 +3.79% $7.41 +1.37%
2004 $6.21 +2.99% $7.44 +0.40%
2005 $6.41 +3.22% $7.43 –0.13%
2006 $6.55 +2.18% $7.35 –1.08%
2007 $6.88 +5.04% $7.51 +2.18%
2008 $7.18 +4.36% $7.54 +0.40%
2009 $7.50 +4.46% $7.91 +4.91%
2010 $7.89 +5.20% $8.19 +3.54%
2011 $7.96 +0.89% $7.96 –2.81%

*Sources: MPAA via Box Office Mojo; Inflation calculated to 2011 dollars with BLS CPI Calculator.

This confirms what moviegoers have been feeling in their pocketbooks over the past few years: it does cost relatively more than it used to to go to the movies. After adjusting for inflation, average ticket prices have increased 23% from $6.46 in 1995 to $7.96 today, and that’s only the average. I can’t remember the last time I paid that little to go to a movie (at night).

Ebert smartly lays the blame, mostly, on theater owners.

Box-office tracking shows that the bright spot in 2011 was the performance of indie, foreign or documentary films. On many weekends, one or more of those titles captures first-place in per-screen average receipts. Yet most moviegoers outside large urban centers can’t find those titles in their local gigantiplex. Instead, all the shopping center compounds seem to be showing the same few overhyped disappointments. Those films open with big ad campaigns, play a couple of weeks, and disappear.

I’ve got a chart for that too:

Top 25 Films of 2011 Ranked by Per-Screen Average**
Per Screen Rank Film Gross Per Screen Average Gross Rank
1 Red State $1,104,682 $220,936 198
2 Evil Bong 3-D $91,260 $91,260 344
3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 $381,011,219 $87,088 1
4 Transformers: Dark of the Moon $352,390,543 $86,201 2
5 Wretches & Jabberers $84,610 $84,610 349
6 Born to Be Wild (IMAX) $14,844,138 $71,366 121
7 The Hangover Part II $254,464,305 $69,242 4
8 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 $272,684,000 $67,064 3
9 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $241,071,802 $57,894 5
10 Bridesmaids $169,106,725 $57,169 12
11 The Help $169,425,912 $56,213 11
12 The Tree of Life $13,303,319 $56,132 125
13 Fast Five $209,837,675 $55,322 6
14 Midnight in Paris $56,341,186 $54,279 53
15 Passione $255,355 $51,071 274
16 Rise of the Planet of the Apes $176,711,822 $47,876 9
17 Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy $2,625,976 $47,745 167
18 Captain America: The First Avenger $176,654,505 $47,552 10
19 Went The Day Well? (2011 re-release) $47,214 $47,214 393
20 Cars 2 $191,452,396 $46,525 7
21 Thor $181,030,624 $45,680 8
22 Bill Cunningham New York $1,510,026 $44,413 185
23 Cave of Forgotten Dreams $5,256,974 $42,740 147
24 Kung Fu Panda 2 $165,249,063 $41,814 13
25 The Smurfs $142,614,158 $41,615 17

**Source: Box Office Mojo.

What I’ve done here is ranked films based not on their total box office take, but instead on their per-screen average, the gross divided by the numbers of screens it opened on. This is a way to measure success on the micro instead of the macro level. Which films were most successful relative to the audiences they were available to?

It’s an imperfect scale, sure. For example, Evil Bong 3-D, Wretches & Jabberers and Went The Day Well? only opened on one screen each. Had they opened at a single other theater and no one came, they wouldn’t make the cut. Kevin Smith’s Red State featured an uncommon release method, making seeing the film an “experience” based on scarcity. The idea paid off as it hits number one on our rejiggered chart.

Take Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, a bold rumination on our emotional existence in the universe. By gross it is down at number 125 for the year, but account for the per-screen average and it hops up to number 12 on our chart. Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris jumps from number 53 to 14; Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams from 147 to 23. The scales tip in the direction of independent, original work

Does this mean that these films would be able to cultivate a wider audience if they were released en masse the way the Harry Potter and Twilight movies do? Not necessarily.1 It does, however, confirm Ebert’s belief that audiences are clamoring for something outside the status quo. Many smaller films are able to find audiences even if they are held back by the scale of their releases. Moviegoers fed up with sequel after sequel would probably love to have something a little different come to their towns.

Ultimately, this all points to an industry that is eating itself alive with overblown budgets and unsustainable release cycles. Audiences aren’t going to be able to justify the high price at the multiplex much longer, and they certainly aren’t going to sit around and wait for the next big “good enough” film forever. There is groundbreaking work to be made for every audience. Here’s hoping that in 2012, more of them light up more screens.

Happy New Year!

  1. To be fair, it’s impressive how high Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ranks per screen given the enormity of its release. Note that The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 actually drops from the number 3 spot to number 8 per screen. Which one is the more valuable property?  ↩