2011 Box Office: Another Nail in Cinema’s Coffin?
Life + Money

2011 Box Office: Another Nail in Cinema’s Coffin?


The final movie box-office tally for 2011 has studio heads and producers losing their key grips.  Movie theater attendance is estimated to close out the year at approximately 1.23 billion tickets sold, the lowest level since 1992. You may think it’s just the continuing impact of the recession. But sales are down a massive 22 percent below 2009, and down 8 percent since last year.  Because of increased ticket prices, revenue is down less -- 4.9 percent from last year.

When you look at the economics, it’s not hard to figure out why the movie business is in a freefall.  The average ticket price nationwide is about $8.  With prices for popcorn, candy and sodas averaging between $4 to $6 dollars per item, a night out for a family of 4 can easily top $60.  If you’re on a date, you’re looking at $30 before you pay for dinner. And that’s not counting the cost of gas to get to the theater. 

Once again, pundits are proclaiming the death of cinema, which was foretold many times in the 20th century.  Depression era critics asked if people would spend at the theater when they couldn’t afford to put dinner on the table.  They were surprised to find that the masses flocked to the movies to escape from the worries of their times.

The dawn of the television age raised the question of why people would go out and pay for a product that they could get for free at home.   But the youth culture of postwar America, newly affluent and mobile in their father’s car, wanted a place to get away from the watchful eyes of their parents.  Hollywood stepped up their game as well with innovations such as widescreen projection, Technicolor and the first round of 3-D films.  Additionally, the slow retirement of the Hayes code allowed increasingly more explicit depictions of sex and violence to appear on screen.

With the advent of cable television, the VCR, the home entertainment center, and of course, Blockbuster, Netflix and, the Internet, the directors of doom were at it again, claiming the movie business would not recover. Yet, the local multiplex has weathered all of these storms.  Now, however, with final box office numbers that could make Louis B. Mayer turn over in his grave, the question is, were these predictions wrong, or merely premature.

With the continuing decline in the price of flat screen televisions along with a shorter window between theater and home market release, even a family of modest income can enjoy a relatively cinema-like experience without the actual cinema. Just add a $3 bag of microwave popcorn.

“It’s immensely hard to be an exhibitor right now,” according to industry veteran Bob Balaban, whose parents were the owners of several theaters.  “The cost of advertising has increased dramatically, and everything is dependant on a big opening weekend.  A movie lives or dies in it’s first three weeks.  There’s no time for smaller pictures to grow an audience.  It’s sad, really.”  Balaban collaborated with director Robert Altman to create Gosford Park, a highly acclaimed Oscar winning movie that grossed almost $90 million.

Aside from this year’s poor results, industry executives are concerned about a major shift in demographics that could spell real trouble. Theatergoers are getting older, with no sign of an influx of younger customers.  In 1975 (the summer of Jaws) the number of patrons between 12-24 was 60%. In 1990, this same group accounted for 43 percent, and in 2010 young moviegoers accounted for 32 percent of all ticket sales. 

For generations, the movie theater was the top of the pop cultural pyramid.  Even for Generation X, allegedly raised by television, the course of movie entertainment went from premiering on the screen, to video or DVD, to cable, and finally to network TV.  But for younger generations, the Multiplex is just one among a myriad of entertainment venues, and increasingly it’s as outdated as a drive-in movie.

The irony is, as younger viewers turn away, the studio’s scramble harder to cater to them, leaving older viewers (the bulk of their customer base) feeling neglected.  Beyond the focus on youth there is also the sense of constant déjà vu.  Seven of the top 10 grossing films of the year were sequels.  Bridesmaids was the only film in the top ten to come from an original script.  The most eagerly anticipated films of next year are the new Batman film and an adaptation of The Hobbit.  As profits decline, Hollywood prefers the stability of films with a built in audience.

But will that audience still be there when the credits roll?