Don't Blame Audiences for the Box Office Blues

by Sean McCarthy

10 June 2010

The success of Avatar and Alice in Wonderland shows it's not the economy that's keeping audiences away this summer... it's the movies.

The day after Memorial Day, Hollywood didn’t send out an S.O.S., it was more of a roadside flare. The message was disappointment for arguably the most finically important weekend of the year for movies. The final Memorial Day weekend tally was about 15 percent below what it was last year. Two big openings, Sex and the City 2 and Disney’s Prince of Persia failed to topple the family-favorite Shrek Forever After. Number-wise, movie attendance hit a 17-year-low for the holiday weekend, according to

This past weekend wasn’t any better. Shrek still dominated. But at this time last year, the R-rated comedy The Hangover had a hefty $45 million opening weekend. This year’s R-rated comedy, Get Him to the Greek opened with just $17 million. Next week doesn’t look any better with ‘80s throwbacks The Karate Kid and The A-Team vying for Shrek‘s spot at number one.
Box office analysts are having a great time trying to figure out why audiences are shrugging off summer movies so far. The flat economy argument, analysts favorite scapegoat, doesn’t hold water as Avatar and Alice in Wonderland made an absolute killing during the usually toxic winter and spring movie seasons. That argument also doesn’t answer the question as to why last summer’s box office was successful, despite the economy being worse on almost every economic indicator.

Nope, if Hollywood wants to know why people are turning away this year, the best place to look is in the mirror. And the best date to gauge where exactly this summer movie season began to fall off the tracks isn’t Memorial Day weekend, but on May 9, when the final box office tally came in for Iron Man 2. While that movie certainly cleaned up at the box office, for many fans, it was a standard sequel by the numbers. But for summer movies in general, it marked the first time in two years where summer didn’t open with a bang.

After 2007’s sequel overkill of Spiderman 3, Shrek the Third, and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, the summer season of 2008 kicked off with the thrilling and funny Iron Man. It proved that the comic book movie could still wow audiences. It also heralded in what was probably the greatest summer movie season in history in terms of film quality. Fans old enough to remember the summer of ‘84 (Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds) and ‘89 (Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, When Harry Met Sally, Lethal Weapon 2) may disagree, but an argument can be made for 2008, which produced Wall-E, The Dark Knight, as well as the aforementioned Iron Man.

2009 was almost just as good. Like 2008, it opened with a fun revisionist blast with Star Trek. It went on to produce critical and commercial smashes like Up, The Hangover, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. In both years, audiences not only awarded quality, but punished cinematic stinkers like The Love Guru, Meet Dave, and Land of the Lost. Of course, both years had movies that no one seemed to like clear the $300-$400 million mark (see Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen). 

In a sense, the economy may be to blame for the slow start to this summer movie season, but not in the way most box office analysts are speculating. The problem is not the money audiences are spending on movies, but the money that movie companies put into this year’s summer movies. Whereas 2007 and 2008’s crop of movies were filmed just before the economic collapse, we are now watching the first major crop of movies that were made during the recession. That may be the reason this latest crop seems to be a tad safer and more conventional than years before. One rumor that was circulating after Iron Man‘s success was that the comic storyline “Demon in a Bottle” could be the main storyline for the sequel. In that story, Tony Stark routinely turns to alcohol to numb his pain after his alter ego is framed for murder. In Iron Man 2, Tony has too much to drink, makes an ass out of himself and scares some guests, but its shrugged off – like a usually straight-laced office worker who has one too many drinks at an office party. Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash supplies a compelling villain and after a few scenes of self-doubt, Tony Stark pulls himself together and saves the day. Not the most original script, but it’ll easily reach $250 million, something the darker “Demon in a Bottle” storyline may not have guaranteed.

This summer can still be saved. But right now, the burden is on the shoulders of both Pixar’s Toy Story 3 and brooding box office summer champ Christopher Nolan’s Inception to bring in both box office gold and a sense of wonder to audiences. Even if Toy Story 3 succeeds, it’s still telling that the summer box office fate is riding on a second sequel of a successful franchise. The odds are against Toy Story 3 being as imaginative and as heartfelt as the first two, but Pixar has taught us never to underestimate them. After all, this is the same company that made a smash movie that had almost 30 minutes of silence at the beginning, and another smash movie where the lead character was well in his ‘70s.

Even if Inception and Toy Story 3 wow audiences and are box office champions, this summer season will most likely be one of the weakest in terms of film quality. It’s unfortunate, because Hollywood has typically been known for following formula. And the past two years, for the most part, audiences have showed they will turn out in droves, despite increased ticket prices, if a movie supplies the right amount of heart, smarts, action and thrills. The $500-million grossing The Dark Knight showed audiences could take darker material if presented the right way and Avatar‘s historic box office record showed that even a modest attempt at character development, in addition to the awe-inducing special effects, could trump the near characterless, but visually impressive Revenge of the Fallen by more than $300 million. The formula, combining smarts and visual pow, has proven successful and can be seen just by viewing the box office charts. It’s unfortunate that Hollywood chose not to follow this formula for this year’s summer crop.

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