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Friday, July 15, 2005

Movies' Box Office Tailspin Arrested—But for How Long?

Thomas Hibbs has provided a very insightful review of Fantastic Four in today's edition of National Review Online.

For me, the most interesting aspect of the review is Hibbs's observations about the decline in movie box office receipts from last year to this:

"One reasonable answer to the question of box-office decline is that the quality of the films is down this year. One of the little noticed features of this year's decline is the post-opening week dive that so many big films are enduring. Just last week, for example, War of the Worlds in its second weekend in release dropped about 60 percent from its opening. That's a sign that, while advertising and stars can create a big opening week, only solid word of mouth can maintain a film's popularity. (As a means of comparing quality with hype, consider that a documentary, not yet in wide release, about migratory penguins, The March of Penguins, ranked 13th last week but took in more money per screen than did F4.)"

Hibbs is correct to note that receipts for a film's second and subsequent weeks are the best gauge of whether it has real appeal.

I think, however, that there is more going on here. As I have noted before, American culture is in fact in the midst of a Romantic era, and the box-office dominance of the comic-book style of motion picture is one clear manifestation of it. Cultural trends, however, are always in flux, and a move too far in one direction usually brings an equal and opposite reaction.

I suspect that our Romantic worldview is too deeply ingrained to become unstuck by one summer of slow movie ticket sales, but it seems possible that a more realistic style of presentation of an essential Romanic vision may arise. However, today's release of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may well provide a boost to the current Romantic narrative trend and forestall a great sense of a need for change. In addition, it will be interesting to see what affect The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has on the industry beginning later this year.


KeithM, Indy said...

Box office prices are also a factor in this.

Who wants to spend 10-15 dollars per ticket, then another 10 dollars for a drink and popcorn, when the movie will be out in several weeks on DVD at the video store or library.

Hunter Baker said...

I noticed the second week drop-off phenomenon years ago with the Seagal and Van Damme films. They always opened big and then fell off the map.

S. T. Karnick said...

KeithM, are prices up significantly over last year? I had not heard that. Certainly it would not explain the week-two drops in audience, anyway.

But your main point is well taken: given that it can easily cost $50+ for a small family to attend a movie, any drop in quality could well create an even greater drop in audience size. In fact, it's a wonder that anybody at all is going to see some of these films. "The triumph of hope over experience" indeed!

James F. Elliott said...

Also, you have the improved technology of home entertainment. DVD players, surround sound, and a good TV aren't out of reach for many now. Throw in HDTV and some TV shows that are better than most films, and you have a recipe for staying at home.

The movie theater as a medium won't disappear for a while. Sometimes there's a film you just have to see on the big screen.

S. T. Karnick said...

The "cocooning" phenomenon which many social observers had predicted as a result of the rise of new technology will probably never happen, as people are still human beings and hence do like to get out and mingle with others. However, it seems likely that it will change the mix of things that people do at home and outside the house, and ultimately the theatrical film may become much like the live theater of today, a special thing for smaller audiences.

Of course, who knows what advances in theatre technology might arise and draw audiences back? Never say never, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

For me, the quality issue is key. My wife and I love going out to movies (and we rarely watch movies at home, so the DVD explanation doesn't fit us). It used to be that we would go at least once a week and as many as 3 times a week. But in the last year or so we just don't seem to be able to find that many good ones. Good movies are still being made, just not in the same quantity. We still want to go, but it's a good week if we find even one worth seeing.

Sometimes we wonder if our standards have imperceptibly snuck upwards.

KeithM, Indy said...

I don't think there was a significant increase in prices over last year, as a combination of a decrease in satisfaction with movies, their loudmouth stars, and having better things to do with our money.

We're just more aware of what we are spending our money on now. We're making just as much or more (depends on my wifes comissions) but we want to make sure we're spending it on things that really matter to us. (Like donating to the British Red Cross)

We'd also rather go spend $100 on dinner, (which we did last Friday at a Morrocan restaurant we found) and support our local economy, then spend $35 going to Hollywood, for 2.5 hours of a so/so quality movie and overpriced refreshments.

I know all these things come up when my friends and I see movies now. Is the star a loudmouth who we don't like? Is the movie one that needs to be seen on a big screen? When we look at the previews we are already rating them, see in theater, see on video, wait till cable, or don't care.

Most movies are only worth a $4 dollar rental, which we can view at home, with cheaper and better tasting popcorn, and a can of pop.

Lately we've seen Batman, and War of the Worlds. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is on our list of maybe see. Mostly because Depp looks positively brilliant as Wonka, and it looks like a big screen movie. After that who knows.

Looking through comming attractions on Fandango, The Great Raid, Transporter 2 (loved the first one), Serenity (big Firefly fan) are about the only movies that look interesting to me.

James F. Elliott said...

Transporter as in whatisname from Snatch Transporter? Oh my god, that movie was sooooo bad. But as for Serenity, hell yeah.

The Liberal Anonymous said...

I saw a preview for Transporter 2. I don't think there was a single shot in which the Audi logo wasn't prominently displayed. In fact, given the prevalence of car commercials at movie theaters lately, it took me a while to realize that it wasn't one.

KeithM, Indy said...

We liked it for the action and car chases, certainly not for the acting.

Sometime we just have to see a trashy movie.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's the Christian right's fault.

"'s clear that "Wedding Crashers" hearkens to a simpler, more innocent time — a time before the movies were hijacked by family-friendly merchandisers and bully moralists. Witty, unhinged and fearless, it's exactly the kind of movie we need now; if only to give James Dobson something to get exercised about after a long day of focusing on the family."---LA Times

Back to simple innocence. And lotsa bare boobs. Yeah, baby, that's the ticket. I'm there.

Hunter Baker said...

Transporter was two movies. A pretty interesting movie for about forty minutes and then a much less interesting movie for the other forty or so. I will sign up for Transporter 2 because I think they could do better and will.

Tlaloc said...

The meteoric rise of the gaming industry undoubtedly plays a role. Since there's a finite amount americans can throw around on entertainment the fact that games have now eclipsed hollywood in total revenue means films are fighting for part of a smaller pie.

Notice how many big name actors are now showing up in video games?

Tlaloc said...

I rather liked the transporter as a bit of action fluff. I do wish they'd do more action movies with real plot and character like the Professional. Still for some mind candy it was fine.

That said I'm rather more interested in the new King Kong.