A look at Hollywood's record-breaking movie slump. And why the excuses for 2005's stinky box office just won't wash
Doom, Dwayne ''The Rock'' Johnson

Forget about The Rock’s noisy videogame-based action flick that opened below expectations last weekend — doom has been the operative word at the box office all year. As the holiday season approaches, the marketplace woes facing Hollywood have reached such an extraordinary level that we daresay even The Rock can’t cook up a solution.

Truth is, the time has come for movie studios to stop spinning and concede that 2005 is about to make box office history — and not the good kind. Total grosses are down 6.6 percent — or nearly $500 million — from 2004, with just nine weeks left in the year. Barring a miracle finish, this could be the steepest year-to-year decline in at least two decades.

Trouble began last summer, which wound up dropping 9 percent from 2004. Then, after The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Flightplan raised hopes with robust openings, fall turned flimsy. During the past month, no movie has topped $20 million in a weekend, the longest such drought in four years. Thanks for coming, folks. Drive home safely!

Not surprisingly, Hollywood execs fail to see the humor, especially now that they’re out of excuses. In fact, their every rationalization about the slump has come to be debunked. Let’s review the industry’s one-liners:

The movies stink
The current favorite excuse. (And if it were true, whose fault would that be?) But in reality, the ratio of classics to crap is about level with last year or the year before. Furthermore, several well-reviewed films — Batman Begins, The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Wedding Crashers — were huge hits. And for anyone who argues that bad movies mean bad box office, we have two words for you: Fantastic Four. And three more: The Longest Yard. And two more: The Pacifier. All big grossers; all critical goats.

There’s been no Passion of the Christ
We’re just not buying it. In any given year, breakout hits like Mel Gibson’s Jesus epic aren’t anomalies — in fact, they’re expected. Take last summer’s March of the Penguins and Crash. Now, while neither of those films neared The Passion‘s $370 million take, a little phenomenon called Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith did earn $380 million in 2005.

What slump? DVD sales are huge
And movie ticket sales are down. Not much consolation if you own a movie theater. Next…

Men aren’t going to the movies
We don’t dispute a recent study that showed young males have curbed their ticket buying. But female-skewing disappointments like In Her Shoes, Elizabethtown, and Just Like Heaven suggest women aren’t flocking to the multiplex either.

It’s cyclical
Perhaps the most infuriating idea of all, because data show that 2005’s downturn isn’t a recurring trend. According to Nielsen EDI, only three times since 1982 have there been annual drops — in ’83, ’85, and ’03 — and those were much smaller.

Wall Street analysts, mindful of the total revenue picture, are starting to get wise to Hollywood’s self-serving shrugs. And the studios’ perpetual inability to fix — or even convincingly explain away — the situation may call for a systemic overhaul. ”There’s cause for alarm,” says analyst Dennis McAlpine, who points out that a film’s theatrical gross often directly correlates to the revenues it commands on TV and video, thus compounding the problem for studios. ”If we see a downtrend next year, then you’ve gotta start confronting the reality that maybe this is for real.” As in, forever.

Given that next year’s slate includes no Star Wars, no Spider-Man, and — yep — no Passion of the Christ, we wonder: Why wait?