By David Poland firstname.lastname@example.org
2010: The Year In Box Office (Part 1)
The tickets sold game… such clap trap.
The stat we do know is overall sales. The cost per ticket is estimated by NATO on a quarterly basis. How accurate is it? Unknown. How accurate is it when you are looking for any specificity or cause-and-effect? Worthless.
Simple logic tells us that a $400 million domestic gross for Toy Story 3 vs a similar gross for Transformers 2 means more tickets sold for TS3. Why? More tickets priced for kids. Of course, it’s possible that the 3D bump balances out or more than balances out the numbers of tickets sold at a lower price. But the truth is… we don’t know.
We do know that Tickets Sold is The New Black in media coverage and that the ultimate self-promoting (and most often way off track) analyst, Rich Greenfield, will just keep beating that drum in order to be quoted. He’s quite literally making numbers up… based on broad stats that cannot be reduced down into the kind of detailed claims he frivolously makes. And his claim that studios have jumped into the 3D business to pump up the number of people going to the movies is simply wrong. It’s a cash business, not a tickets sold business. Domestically, Inception clearly sold fewer tickets than Harry Potter 7.0. But that’s the dream! Make a movie for adults and make more money from less tickets sold.
Anyway… back to earth…
If you want to know the big difference between 2009, the highest grossing year every, and 2010, start with this stat; Thirty-two $100 million domestic grossers in 2009… Twenty-five in 2010.
And is wasn’t like this led to a bunch of films grossing between $50m and $100m that just happened to fall short of the mark. There was a much bigger “middle class” in that gross range… but mostly in the 70s, well short of nine-figures.
In terms of gross, things are worse than they might seem, as the $10.5 billion figure being thrown around includes films released in 2009 that played into 2010… which includes $470 million of Avatar‘s $750m domestic gross, giving 2010 a near $200m bonus over last year on that film alone. 2011 won’t get that benefit. It will have a similar amount of holdover business aside from Avatar, but nothing to come close to matching Avatar.
But as I have always said, “It’s the movies, stupid.”
The audience shows up when they want to show up. They aren’t avoiding the theaters. It’s not that kind of proposition.
There were four $300m+ domestic releases this year, compared to three last year. But there were more $200m-$300m films last year.
There were ten $450 million grossing films worldwide both this year and last.
But there is no December title this year that’s going to get close to $200 million domestic… or, most likely, $400m worldwide. Last year, there were three.
The only November title to get there this year will be Potter… last year, there were two.
But what does this mean? Chicken Littles will scream that the screen is falling. But there is no logical indication of that. It’s the movies.
Was there a potential The Blind Side in the last couple of months that I didn’t notice? I don’t think so. Was there an Avatar that didn’t quite take off? Even reducing expectations significantly from Avatar to Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Squeakquel, Tron 2 and Narnia 3 didn’t get there… but would have really been a surprise had they gotten there.
And for me, this is the lesson. It’s not about quality… it’s about popularity. We can argue all day about how the two things match up or do not. But in the end, Inception can be a 100x better movie than 2012, but at the box office, Inception did only 6% better. Obviously, given a choice, every studio would prefer to have Inception (now that it proved to be a mega-grosser). But every studio would also want a 2012 on their schedule every November, no matter how embarrassing as a movie.
If you look at the movies at the top of the charts, you’ll see that it was adults, not kids, who seemed to show up less at the movies this year. Was it the recession or what it too many movies aimed at kids? Impossible to know. But last year, I see four of the Top Ten aimed at adults (The Hangover, Star Trek, The Blind Side, Sherlock Holmes) and this year, only Inception. (Pixar is age neutral… and obviously I am using a broad brush as to what “aimed at adults” means.)
The great irony of box office coverage at this time of year is that it echoes the ideals of Wall Street, not movie fans… that somehow, hitting the target of beating the grosses of the year before is the goal. It’s not. Max profitability is the goal… as ever. Critics often pay lip service to the idea of quality and how studios would be well served to embrace it. The meme of recent years was All Blockbusters and Little Hits. 2010′s answer to that was, Blockbusters, lots of mid-range box office ($40m – $100m), and most under $40m wide releases being seen as disappointing, even if they were profitable. But it’s not like audiences are trying to hit a number at the box office. Bigger numbers are coming for nichier product. And the things that don’t catch fire are deader than ever. Adam Sandler up, Never Let Me Go down. And the box office for movies that writers want to beat up, like The A-Team, is fine… they just spent too damn much on the picture.
There is nothing broken about the box office. There is no reason to panic. But the studios, which are always smarter than the media understands, need to continue to find ways to make it work at a price. There is plenty of audience for everyone… and for every delivery format.
Part Two: The Studios