Those sitting in a multiplex are used to many sounds: the crunching of popcorn, the annoying tweedle of a cell phone, the old-person mutterings of ”Who’s that guy? Was he the one with the hat in the last scene?” But this year a new sound could be heard in theaters: crickets.
The weekend of Feb. 25 kicked off a 19-week box office slide, in which each weekend’s gross lagged that of the corresponding period in 2004. Fantastic Four‘s $56 million July opening stopped that ignominious record, but much like FF’s entertainment value, the good news was fleeting. Even with some late-year contenders like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (pulling in $102.3 million its first weekend) and The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe ($81.3 million in its first week), by mid-December, 2005’s take of $8.4 billion was down more than five percent from last year, while attendance dropped more than seven percent. Flame off.
What gives? One study suggested that — despite the successful stud value of raunchy R-rated comedies like Wedding Crashers (which grossed $209 million domestically) and The 40 Year-Old Virgin ($109 million) — more young men were actually staying home. But that didn’t mean studios were faring any better at seducing women, as evidenced by listless chick bait like In Her Shoes ($32 million) and Elizabethtown ($27 million). With each week’s dismal returns came another theory explaining the slump: High gas prices are eating into Americans’ budgets! People are watching DVDs instead! And the most surprisingly honest hypothesis came from studio heads themselves, like Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chairman Amy Pascal, who was quoted as saying it was easy to blame everything else, but ”I think it has to do with the movies themselves.”
Unfortunately, none of these reasons work on their own, not even (sorry, film lovers) the ”movies are crappy” theory. Some bad movies deservedly tanked (Stealth, $32 million), but others succeeded despite lousy reviews (Fantastic Four, $155 million). As for quality films, some were justly rewarded (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, $206 million) while others were punished (Cinderella Man, $62 million, well below its $88 million budget). So much for a more discriminating audience.
Sadly, debunking all these rationales merely leads to a much more frightening conclusion: It’s a little of everything. And if the slide continues, all those little problems could add up to a big one for Hollywood.