Box Office Blahs: Blame It on (Fill in the Blank) Reasons for Slump Are Cinematic in Scope http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/12/29/AR2005122901 449_pf.html By William Booth Washington Post Staff Writer Friday, December 30, 2005; C01
LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood ticket sales took a little swan dive in 2005. Why? The consensus hypothesis appears to be that the movies were -- brace yourselves -- not good. The industry and its observers are also variously blaming DVDs, video games, iPods, cellular phones, HBO, crying babies, $10 tickets, Chinese pirates, big screen plasma TVs, an aging demographic, liberal bias, video-on-demand, annoying pre-feature commercials and the Bush administration's energy policy. The Great Box Office Slump has been covered by the entertainment press with a kind of giddy obsession ever since the summer proved blockbuster-deficient. Each week, the prognosticators sought deeper meaning in the weekend tallies for undercooked turkeys such as "Stealth" and "The Legend of Zorro." There was hope in the Hollywood press that "King Kong" might "save the day," but alas, the big ape has so far "disappointed," if it is possible for a $66 million opening five-day gross to disappoint (which it is, since Peter Jackson and Universal spent $220 million making the monkey movie). The year isn't quite over, but Hollywood will likely end 2005 having sold about 1.4 billion tickets in the United States, which is a 6 percent decrease from last year. Revenue at the box office is expected to reach about $9 billion, trailing last year by 4 to 5 percent (the dip is slightly less than it would have been otherwise because of rising ticket prices). This would be no big deal, except it appears to be a trend -- this marks the third consecutive year for declining attendance. And so the billion-dollar question: Does this represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in the moviegoing habits or was it just another off year in cyclical show business? Not only are the studio suits and the pundits not sure what is behind the box office drop, there is disagreement over its significance. "It's not a little off. Six percent is a big number," says Brandon Gray, founder of Box Office Mojo, an online movie publication and box office tracking service. "And they've got a big problem." In the press, some Wall Street analysts are using terms like "alarm" and "doom." Not so, says Tom Rothman, the cheery chairman of 20th Century Fox, which had a record-breaking year. Rothman describes the current clamor as "the great over-hyped, over-exposed, over-reported box office decline." Rothman believes there is no fundamental revolution occurring in the movie theater business and that the year's totals were lower simply because a relative handful of high-profile potential blockbusters did not perform to expectations. Rothman insists that history is on his side. "They said sound was going to kill the movies, that TV would, that home video would, that cable would, that pay-per-view would. Every time -- the hand-wringing! The woe-is-me! And instead what happened was, the pie gets bigger." John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade organization representing 37,500 screens, also argues there is no reason to panic. "It was a bit of a down year for theatergoing," he says. "There's been bigger down years." True, there was a 9 percent fall in ticket sales in 1980, a 12 percent plunge in 1985 and a 6 percent drop in 1990. "We're having another fabulous year," says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, whose studio business was up 15 percent. "A lot of people are crying wolf early." Actually what happened was that Fox and Warner Bros. had a great year, and "a couple of guys had a tough year," Fellman says. A couple of guys like Sony Pictures ("Stealth") and DreamWorks ("The Island")? It is interesting that there is consensus that one big reason for the box office slump was the films themselves. "If you make good movies, people go," says Rothman. "If you make crappy movies, they stay home." Says Fithian of the theater association: "When the movies come back, the patrons will come back . . . and the movies this year, unfortunately, were only so-so." Or were they? Judging movie quality is an imperfect science, but Senh Duong, founder of the Web site Rotten Tomatoes, ran the numbers for us. Rotten Tomatoes tallies critical reviews of the movies and then rates the movies as either "fresh" or "rotten." In 2005, Duong says, 44 percent of the movies in wide release received positive reviews in the media (both print and online), compared with 42 percent in 2004, 43 percent in 2003 and 45 percent in 2002. "As you can see from the charts, quality-wise, it's pretty consistent with previous years," Duong says. "So no, the movies this year don't smell much worse." Duong says that revenues might be off this year because the summer of 2005 only produced one breakaway blockbuster ("Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith") and that sequels, though generally seen as creatively uninteresting, pack the multiplexes; though the summer of '05 had plenty of remakes (of TV shows such as "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Bewitched") there was really only one mega-sequel, and that was "Star Wars." (The other big hits of the summer were "War of the Worlds" and "Batman Begins," which was sorta prequelly.) Of course, relying on the Tomatometer suggests that critics matter, which is an idea many in Hollywood find quaint. Consider critical duds like "The Longest Yard" (panned by reviewers but embraced by viewers, it grossed $158 million). Or "Fantastic Four" at $154 million. Or "The Pacifier" at $113 million. So when Hollywood studio heads and theater exhibitors talk about "bad movies," what they really mean is movies that audiences don't pay to see. It is a subtle point but worth remembering. Of course, there might be more going on here than "bad movies." Consider: Cost. The average American sees five movies a year. Fithian of the theater owners association concedes that a top complaint from patrons is the price of a ticket, which nationally averages about $6.50 but has now settled in at $10 for adults in New York, Los Angeles and Washington. Studios and exhibitors share the ticket price revenue; where the theater owners really make their money is on popcorn, sodas, Jujyfruits and the like. When moviegoers pay for all that, plus parking and babysitters, a movie date can run $50, easy. Fithian counters that when compared with other two-hour entertainments (like the ballet or a ballgame or a rock concert), movies are still a bargain. Gasoline. Harry Knowles, the founder of the movie Web site Ain't It Cool News, has another idea. It is not the cost of the movie ticket that is depressing box office. Or the quality of cinema. "The movies are fine," he says. "It's George W. Bush's failed energy policy that is eating away at the family entertainment budget because that extra $70 a month in gas is the money that they would have spent on frivolous things like movies, except now they don't have the money." Liberals. Govindini Murty, co-director of the conservative Liberty Film Festival, wrote in the Los Angeles Times that "Hollywood could turn things around, but that might mean tolerating films with pro-conservative themes." This theme is echoed by others who say that Hollywood makes too many violent, nihilistic and sexually explicit films, and that is why people stay home. The multiplex experience. Ringing cell phones, crying babies, loud talkers, sticky floors and 20-minute-long commercial packages of advertisements. Fithian says theater owners are concerned enough about the complaints that they are planning to hire more ushers to shush rude patrons. As for the commercials? The forecasting firm ZenithOptimedia expects that advertisers will increase their buys in movie ad packages by 15 percent next year. Couch potatoes. Bruce Feirstein wrote in the New York Observer that he knew the home entertainment movement was about to take off when he saw that Costco was selling lounge chairs with holders for popcorn and drinks. DVDs. Everyone agrees there is more competition for eyeballs and ears than ever, with video games, cable TV, video on demand, the Internet and DVDs (and the high-definition units just around the corner). Some call DVDs "movie killers," but Hollywood executives don't see it that way. DVDs have been out for eight years, during which time movie box office has mostly boomed. A strong theatrical release generally means stronger DVD sales, and let's not forget that the studios now derive more than half their film revenues from DVD releases. (Tangentially, it is important never to confuse box office receipts with profitability; a movie that costs $220 million to make has got to sell a lot more tickets than one that was shot for $22 million -- a fact always ignored in weekly box office roundups). Most worrisome to theater owners is the prospect that Hollywood may close the so-called "video window." Currently, there is a four-to-five-month lag between theatrical release and DVD sales. This allows a movie to play at the mall before being sold at the mall. If the release were simultaneous, or nearly so, that could change the landscape. At least one mogul plans to test the waters. Billionaire entertainment impresario Mark Cuban believes that consumers should be able to watch a movie in whatever format they like, whenever they like: on cable, DVD, download or movie theater. And he plans to do just that next month when his company releases on the same day, on DVD, digital cable and in theaters, Steven Soderbergh's new movie, "Bubble." The film is a low-budget indie, so this might be more of an experiment than a true test. But if the major studios follow suit -- and Bob Iger of Disney has suggested he might be interested in doing just that -- the future releases of "Mission: Impossible 7" or "Dodgeball 4" could challenge the moviegoing habit. © 2005 The Washington Post Company You are a subscribed member of the infowarrior list. Visit www.infowarrior.org for list information or to unsubscribe. This message may be redistributed freely in its entirety. Any and all copyrights appearing in list messages are maintained by their respective owners.