What’s the reason for the miserable box office performance in 2011?
This is not the first time we’ve asked this question. I asked it back in 2005 in a piece in The New York Times that wondered: “Are people turning away from lackluster movies, or turning their
backs on the whole business of going to theaters?”
At the time, I got a lot of blowback from studio executives and theater owners alike who thought I was way off the mark, despite what at the time was an 11-week slump of declining movie attendance and revenue — the longest since 2000.
Now we’ve lived through a decade of declining movie attendance – seven of the last nine year have represented falling attendance or, at best, flat attendance (see box, left, sourced to Boxofficemojo.com). The 3D bonanza, adopted last year by A-list directors Martin Scorsese (“Hugo”) and Steven Spielberg (“Tintin”) hasn’t translated into robust box office sales. We know that technology has decimated the DVD money gusher.
When TheWrap asked several experts, few were particularly optimistic.
“It’s not cyclical. This is a technological shift on a generational scale, and the long term technology is distribution on the web—and that’s not 10 years, that’s forever,” said the respected financial analyst Hal Vogel, who declared that the business “will never be the same again.”
“One obvious lesson is that high-end technology can have a toxic effect on films,” said Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern.
No one likes to be a nay-sayer. Movies are still a $10-billion-a-year business domestically, with three times that sum coming in from overseas. On the other hand, foreign audiences tend to follow domestic trends.
Everyone agrees that this has not been a very strong year for movies. Two of the best of them, “Midnight in Paris” and “The Artist,” suggest that audiences have a hankering for nostalgia.
But only a fool would ignore the trends suggested by the past decade.
Last year I called for a bold move by a media company with guts: acquire a new media leviathan. Instead it was AOL that bought The Huffington Post, not NewsCorp. Warner Brothers did buy Flixster. But come on – I said BOLD. Netflix is fully half the price it was last year – Jeff Bewkes, are you listening?
Meantime, movies will still rate as an entertainment experience, but we need better results than we had this year. Here are a few thoughts:
* Tell better stories. As Morgenstern points out, a brilliant use of 3D does no one any good when we don’t care about the characters and the story is not the focus. (Sorry, “Hugo.”) Movies are story-telling, first and foremost. Give me one to care about and – as a number of thriving indie movies suggest – audiences will show up.
* Don’t forget adult dramas. Adults are still going to the movies. We’re old. We have money. We’ve never heard of “Call of Duty.” We don’t know how to stream yet. Make movies for us. (See above.)
* Explore the overseas markets beyond movie-saturated India and quota-bound China. Other markets are ripe for exploitation, countries with a middle class that is growing exponentially and eager to discover the pleasures of consumer society. We’re talking Brazil, Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.
* Find a way to connect the gaming obsession of what used to be the core moviegoing audiences – young males 13-24 – with the movie experience. Learn from that interactivity and use that to drive them to the multiplex. (This is a challenge for marketing geniuses. Hollywood has plenty of those.)
* Love Netflix. Embrace Amazon. Warm up to YouTube. So you didn’t buy a new media monster? Get used to working with the digital masters who move the needle in our brave new world. They will eventually bring Hollywood major revenue, even if it won’t match the billions lost from DVDs.