Year-to-year box office drops for first time since 1991. Despite higher ticket prices, movie audiences dwindled and spent $40 million less than last year

By Gary Susman
Updated December 29, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Finding Nemo: Pixar/Disney

Usually, Hollywood can count on inflation and rising ticket prices to ensure that this year’s box office total will exceed last year’s. But 2003 will see the first drop in year-to-year box office since 1991, according to Exhibitor Relations. According to the Wall Street Journal, the movie number-crunching firm announced its estimate over the weekend that the 2003 tally at the multiplex will come to about $9.28 billion, about $40 million shy of 2002’s take.

Ticket prices rose some 4 percent in 2003, the Journal reports, meaning that the number of moviegoers declined by 4.23 percent this year, the fourth such drop in the last decade. The Journal speculates that Hollywood might finally be feeling the effects of piracy, though a more likely reason is that there were fewer hits with long legs in 2003 than in 2002.

Last year saw such blockbusters as ”Spider-Man,” the second ”Harry Potter” and ”Lord of the Rings” movies, ”Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” and even ”My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” all of which earned money for months after their initial releases. This year, despite such huge hits as ”Finding Nemo,” ”Pirates of the Caribbean,” and ”The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (which has earned $224 million in 12 days and shows no sign of slowing down yet), many of 2003’s anticipated blockbusters turned out to have short shelf lives once audience word of mouth got out, so such movies as ”The Hulk” and the sequels to ”The Matrix,” ”Charlie’s Angels,” ”Legally Blonde,” and ”Tomb Raider” earned far less than expected. Clearly, what 2003’s movies needed was more clownfish and hobbits.