Box Office 2011: Lessons Learned From a Deadly Year

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Attendance, revenue and ticket sales were all down, despite a strong summer — here’s what went right and wrong

No matter how the year is spun, the trends at the domestic box office in 2011 are troubling.

Attendance was at its lowest mark since 1992, when only 1.17 billion tickets were sold in the U.S. and Canada. With less than a week left in 2011, about 1.23 billion movie tickets have been purchased — 106 million fewer than last year, 279 million fewer than 2009 and 108 million fewer than 2008.

Those who did buy tickets, meanwhile, grew older, with numbers of younger audience members continuing to dwindle. 

Also read: They May Be All Right, But Are Kids Running Away From the Multiplex? 

Year-to-date revenue is down 4.9 percent compared to this point in 2010 and 4.5 percent compared to this point in 2009. 

And perhaps most concerning, creativity is down, too — of the top 10 earners this year, seven were sequels, one was a reboot and two were based on comic books.

Of course, in a year during which the motion-picture business flirted with disaster on several occasions, things could have been worse.

The market was down more than 20 percent year-to-year at one point in the first quarter, but a strong summer — fueled by three billion-dollar sequels, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2" — gave the business at least a fighting chance to pull even for the year.

Also read: Billion-Dollar Babies to Superhero Busts — 5 Lessons of the Summer Box Office

That opportunity was squandered over Thanksgiving weekend, when the studios over-saturated multiplexes with family films, and only Disney's "Muppets" escaped with a decent opening.

Things could have gone seriously south over the Christmas holiday, too, when eight films opened wide within a span of only nine days. But the domestic market ended up 8 percent compared to the same four-day Christmas weekend in 2010.

There's also the foreign market, which has dwarfed the domestic box office this year for major releases including "Pirates" — which grossed nearly 80 percent of its $1.04 billion worldwide take overseas.

In fact, foreign box-office totals could make everyone forget about the under-performance of the domestic market this year and even help the movie business beat its 2010 global theatrical revenue record of $31.8 billion.

With those broad trends in mind, here are some other things we learned about the box office in 2011:

FEMALE-DRIVEN COMEDY IS HOT

2011 will be remembered as a year in which a new sub-genre was invented — the R-rated chick comedy.

Universal's "Bridesmaids" proved to be the big revelation — a raunchy showcase for women comics that grossed $288.4 million worldwide on a $32.5 million budget. 

In fact, with fully 67 percent of the film's opening audience turning out to be female, the success of "SNL" star Kristen Wiig's movie opened the industry's eyes to the fact that women like R-rated films.

Also read: 'Bridesmaids' Sparks a Genre: Why We'll See A Lot More R-Rated Chick Flicks 

On the heels of "Bridesmaids," Sony's "Bad Teacher" starring Cameron Diaz grossed $216.2 million globally on a $20 million budget, further reinforcing the notion.

Beyond the recent development trend of honest, female-driven comedy, there's a general recognition now that women like to laugh, too — "The Hangover — Part II's" opening, for example, was 51 percent female-driven.

Meanwhile, besides comedies, the female quadrants also rendered one of 2011's other surprise breakout hits, DreamWorks Civil Rights-Era drama "The Help," which grossed nearly $170 million on a $25 million budget.

TIME TO DECLARE CREATIVE BANKRUPTCY

Yes, the film industry has become a bit reliant on sequels, prequels, reboots and comic-book/graphic-novel adaptations.

How reliant, you ask?

The seven top-grossing movies of the year — “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 1,” “The Hangover Part II,” Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “Fast Five” and “Cars 2” — were sequels.

The eighth and 10th highest-grossing movies of the year, “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger,” were based on comic books. And the ninth biggest movie of the year, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” was a reboot.

Of the top 15 highest grossing films domestically this year, only one movie — "Bridesmaids" — was spawned by an original movie concept ("The Help" was based on a best-seller).

Also read: Too Many Men in Tights? 5 Reasons the Superhero Summer Has Been a Bust

This trend line becomes a little bleaker when you consider that major franchises like "Harry Potter," "Twilight" and "The Dark Knight" are either wrapped or in the process of winding down. And in 2011, the major studios didn't do a lot to launch new franchises ("Green Lantern," anyone?).

3D CAME OF AGE, FOR BETTER AND FOR WORSE

More than 40 movies were released in 3D in 2011, meaning the format is more of a standard feature than theatrical event now.

There were big hits like "Harry Potter" and "Transformers" — but audiences would have flocked to those under any cirumstances. Similarly, they would have avoided the spectacular misses — “Conan the Barbarian,” "Mars Needs Moms," "Hugo" — under any circumstances, as well. 

Of course, in a global downturn with double-digit unemployment, those $2-to-$4 up-charges probably mattered. And, for the most part, it would have to be admitted that with only a few exceptions, the third dimension was hardly worth the price.

Also read: Huge Success of 'The Lion King' Re-release Has Studios Studying Their Libraries

Worse, 3D drove up ticket consumer cost at a bad time. Admission prices have stabilized after peaking at $7.89 in 2010, according to the National Association of Theater Owners — but these prices are still well above the $6.88 they averaged in 2007, right before the start of the recession.

There is, however, the upside of found money, with Disney's under-$10 million 3D conversion of the 1994 family film "The Lion King" rendering $94.2 million upon theatrical re-release over the summer.

And next year will see a flurry of re-releases — not only Disney classics like "Beauty and the Beast," but "Star Wars" and "Titanic," too, so the format could end up moving the needle for the industry in major way, after all.

TOM CRUISE IS BACK

He may be weird – hell, he is weird – but Tom Cruise is a movie star.

“Mission: Impossible” is his biggest movie since he jumped on Oprah’s couch. His 2010 “Knight and Day” and 2008 “Valkyrie” were disappointments.

His role in the 2008 “Tropic Thunder” was so tiny it doesn’t count and his 2007 “Lions for Lambs” was — charitably — forgettable. “Mission: Impossible III” in 2006 was solid, but “M:I:4” will do better. And before that, he was couch-jumping.

“M:I:4” proved that Cruise — once one of the biggest movie stars in the world — can still open a movie.

And he has plenty waiting: He stars in — but isn’t expected to carry — next year’s “Rock of Ages.”

He already is filming Paramount’s “One Shot,” in which he stars as Jack Reacher. The detective is the main character in Lee Childs’ popular series of novels.

Cruise also is starring in Warner Bros. 2013 “All You Need Is Kill” and Universal’s 2013 “Oblivion.”

IT'S TIME TO STOP BLAMING "AVATAR"

Throughout the first quarter, as each week fell far short compared its 2010 counterpart, studio distribution executives issued the common refrain that the market can't be reasonably compared to a box office that featured James Cameron's groundbreaking "Avatar."

Fair enough — with "Avatar" grossing the bulk of its $760.5 million in domestic revenue in the first quarter of  2010, there was certainly some validity to that argument.

Also read: Christmas Crush: Too Many Big Films Crowd Soft Holiday Box Office

Conversely, distribution executives might think twice about celebrating their Christmas-week performances, given that they're comparing their 2011 Yule haul to a 2010 holiday period that featured only two new wide releases — "Little Fockers" and "True Grit" — doing any significant business.

In fact, even though nearly twice as many movies were released in the run-up before Christmas this year, the market only grew marginally.

Ho, ho, ho …