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)|
|1997||Men in Black|
|1999||Star Wars Ep. I: The Phantom Menace|
|2000||How the Grinch Stole Christmas|
|2001||Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone|
|2005||Star Wars Ep. III: Revenge of the Sith|
|2006||Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest|
|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.
|% +/-||Adj. for
|% +/- Adj.|
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:
|Per Screen Rank||Film||Gross||Per Screen Average||Gross Rank|
|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|
|12||The Tree of Life||$13,303,319||$56,132||125|
|14||Midnight in Paris||$56,341,186||$54,279||53|
|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|
|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|
**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!
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? ↩