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Year-end box office blues

Why ticket sales stumbled in a holiday movie season full of high-profile sequels and stars

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Watching Tom Cruise climb a Dubai office tower using super-sticky ski gloves was pretty much the only Christmas miracle at movie theaters last week. Aside from Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol‘s solid opening, a lackluster holiday season capped a bah-humbug year at the box office.

The Thanksgiving slate continued a yearlong slump. November’s Hugo and Arthur Christmas have grossed only about $45 million each so far. While The Muppets opened strong at $29 million, it fell off quickly and has grossed just $76.9 million after five weeks in theaters.

Once upon a time, December was a month for great box office results. This year, even Steven Spielberg got coal in his stocking: The Adventures of Tintin took in a worrisome $16.1 million in its four-day debut, though it has already made $239 million overseas. (The director’s War Horse seems to be doing better domestically, grossing $15 million in its first two days.) Both Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked disappointed in their first 11 days, grossing $90.6 million and $56.9 million, respectively, which is less than the previous installments in their series. The ensemble romance New Year’s Eve lost steam by Christmas Eve, earning a measly $34.3 million after three weeks in release. Cameron Crowe‘s drama We Bought a Zoo made only $15.6 million in its first four-day weekend. And The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, David Fincher‘s adaptation of the best-selling novel, got off to a sluggish start — $27.8 million over six days — though its hard-R rating may have limited its Christmas appeal, and it still has strong reviews and Oscar buzz to build on.

According to the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), from Oct. 1 to Dec. 13, revenues were down 8.5 percent from the same time last year. As of Dec. 13, box office in 2011 is down a total of 4 percent, from $9.95 billion in 2010 to $9.57 billion, and attendance for the year is down 5.6 percent. That’s on top of a 5 percent drop in 2010.

”I think it’s primarily what’s out there in the marketplace,” NATO’s Patrick Corcoran offers as one explanation. ”There wasn’t stuff that was broadly compelling for the audience.” That theory — that the movies themselves weren’t great — has some merit. But there are other, less subjective reasons for Hollywood’s crappy Christmas. Ticket prices, for one, are undoubtedly keeping some at home. On average, it cost $7.96 to go to the movies in 2011, according to NATO. That’s up nearly half a buck from 2009 (3-D tickets are partly responsible for the rise). ”People’s economic situations are forcing them to choose,” says Hollywood.com’s Paul Dergarabedian. ”There are just a lot of options for people’s entertainment — that’s always been the case, but it’s so prevalent now.” Another possibility is the seasonal shift in the release schedule. With more and more tentpole movies like Fast Five coming out in early spring, some have argued this leaves fewer potential blockbusters by the time the holiday season rolls around. Corcoran, for one, isn’t a fan of that hypothesis. ”The right movie can open any time of year,” he insists. For now, at least, those right movies are few and far between.

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