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2011 box office numbers are down, but don't blame the movies

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Sucker Punch
Clay Enos

With movie attendance down a staggering 20 percent so far this year this compared to 2010, the studios are desperately seeking answers. Some observers cite higher ticket prices in the midst of a slow-to-recover economy. Others think big-screen television technology makes home viewing too tempting, and others point to video games and the Internet as box-office distractions. But give the industry some credit: In just about every analysis, some level-headed studio exec will look in the mirror and blame the product itself. “So far there is just nothing terribly compelling about what we’re delivering as an industry,” Michael Lynton, chief executive of Sony Pictures Entertainment recently told the Los Angeles Times. It’s a frank self-criticism, but there’s comfort in it, too: Make the movies better and the customers will come back.

But are the movies really that bad? Aren’t films notoriously awful in the first few months of every year, when the studios dump their dregs in between awards season and the summer? Is this year’s crop really worse than last year’s or the year before that? I haven’t forgotten — though I’ve tried — that I paid to see Clash of the Titans last year.

Critically speaking, 2011’s top box-office films are actually better than last year’s class. According to Metacritic.com, the online critical aggregate that condenses reviews to a numerical value between 1-100, the average score of this year’s top 20 films is 47.5. Pretty mediocre. But it’s actually up compared to last year, when the 20 top films released during the first 14 weeks of the year scored just 46.7. In 2009, that figure was slightly higher (48.2), but 2008 (44.4) and 2007 (42.9) posted the lowest grades in the last five years. So as disappointing as Season of the Witch, Battle: Los Angeles, and The Roommate have been, 2011 is no worse than recent history in the minds of the men and women who critique the art of filmmaking.

Granted, box-office success does not always correlate with critical reception, and perhaps this year’s films lack some innate four-quadrant quality that connects with moviegoers and brings them back again and again. But to say that Hollywood’s serious problems are primarily the result of inferior product sounds a little like denial. In light of the anecdotal data, the reality might be much more alarming. Studios can tell themselves that audiences will return to the theater when better and bigger movies arrive, but what if we have crossed a tipping point where cost, quality, and comfort have pushed us toward different entertainment choices? What if all of Jack’s pirates and all of the Avengers can’t put Hollywood’s Humpty-Dumpty together again?

The true test starts next month, when Thor kicks off the summer movie season on May 6. Do you think this summer’s blockbusters will deliver the industry from its current doldrums?

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