Explaining That Whole Bad Box Office Problem


This past year was an abysmal one for the movie industry. Hollywood's box office haul was so lousy in 2011 that, according to the Associated Press, the moviegoing audience shrunk to its smallest size since 2005. What gives? Well, everyone and their brother has taken a crack at answering this question over the past few months, especially once the summer ended and it became clear that there just wasn't enough steam left to save the year. There are a myriad of explanations -- the economy, the quality of the movies themselves, the competition for attention from other forms of entertainment, and on and on and on.

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert distilled six root causes for the downturn at the box office, and they range from the interesting to the banal. His point that there was no Avatar or The Dark Knight in 2011, that is to say a film for which even the term blockbuster does not suffice, is well taken. His contention that theaters are miserable if you're under the age of 30 or that popcorn containers are too large doesn't seem quite as on point.

But we want to focus on his final two explanations for our purposes. They seem the most insightful -- the most plausible root causes for the rot at the box office.

First, Ebert hammers home on the many emerging ways which we can enjoy a movie:

5. Competition from other forms of delivery. Movies streaming over the internet are no longer a sci-fi fantasy. TV screens are growing larger and cheaper. Consumers are finding devices that easily play internet movies through TV sets. Netflix alone accounts for 30% of all internet traffic in the evening. That represents millions of moviegoers. They're simply not in a theater. This could be seen as an argument about why newspapers and their readers need movie critics more than ever; the number of choices can be baffling.

Then, he hammers Hollywood for going in the opposite direction and giving the average moviegoer much less in terms of choice at the actual theater on any given weekend.

6. Lack of choice. 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.

The myth that small-town moviegoers don't like "art movies" is undercut by Netflix's viewing results; the third most popular movie on Dec. 28 on Netflix was "Certified Copy," by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. You've heard of him? In fourth place -- French director Alain Corneau's "Love Crime." In fifth, "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" -- but the subtitled Swedish version.

The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It's the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can't depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.

The interesting thing here is that while these factors are tangentially related, the former is utterly without a solution while the latter is a relatively easy thing to fix. The home theater option isn't going away. In fact, as high-definition televisions improve exponentially and streaming options continue to multiply, it's only going to be more of a draw to the consumer.

The choice factor so easily could get better, though. And, in fact, the choice factor that streaming services like Netflix provide might be accelerating the growth of that option as theater options dessicate.

We're lucky enough to live in an area where there are a number of independent movie options at our fingertips. In fact, in the nearest town, the independent movie house and a Regal theater are just a block apart. The choice for the moviegoer is stark.

Take right now, for example. At the Regal, you can choose from The Darkest Hour, We Bought a Zoo, The Adventures of Tintin, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, New Year's Eve, The Sitter, Hugo and The Muppets. Meanwhile, at the indie theater, you can choose from War Horse, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Young Adult, The Artist, A Dangerous Method and The Descendants.

The point isn't really that you'd want to choose one theater or the other. Who'd want to miss out on Hugo or The Descendants? It's more that if you were stuck with only what the Regal has to offer, you might just stay home a lot too.