Fewer people are paying to see movies, and who can blame them?

Robert W. Butler
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Hollywood kept its head above water in 2010.

Sort of.

Looked at numerically, you might at first conclude that the movie biz had a good year.

According to, which tracks box office data, Hollywood sold $10.2 billion in domestic tickets over the last 12 months.

That's a bit less than the $10.65 billion sold in 2009, but still impressive enough to make 2010 the second-best year ever for ticket income.

Good news, eh?

Maybe not. You see, there's rot beneath the glitz. Ticket income may look OK. But when you study attendance numbers, it's a whole new story.

Last year 1.3 billion tickets were sold, way down from the 1.58 billion sold in 2002. In fact, the just-ended year had the worst attendance since the 1.26 billion sold in 1996.

Attendance was down 5.4 percent compared to 2009. That's the biggest drop in five years. More income, fewer customers.

I was never good at economics, but that means fewer people are paying more for the pleasure of going to the movies.

It's a shrinking audience, not exactly a blueprint for continuing success.

And here's an even grimmer thought: The box office performed as well as it did thanks to the extra bucks generated by 3-D films. Theaters typically charge $3 more to see a 3-D movie. So far, moviegoers have been willing to cough up the extra dollars.

I'm not sure they're going to keep doing it.

I'm amazed that a family of four can even afford to go see a movie, much less a 3-D one. We're talking (conservatively) $30 in tickets. Give each family member $6 for concessions (not that $6 will buy much nowadays) and you have a $50-plus night at the theater — $60-plus for 3-D.

How many movies are worth that sort of investment?

And how many of us are willing to spend those premium dollars week after week on 3-D movies when no 3-D film seen last year came even close to the visual innovation and comfortable watchability of 2009's "Avatar"? What happens when the "wow" factor becomes the "meh" factor?

3-D alone can't save bad movies. Yeah, earlier in the year we flocked to see "Clash of the Titans" with its miserable post-production conversion to 3-D. But as the weeks went by we got picky. Check out the crash-and-burn runs of "Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore," "Legends of the Guardians" and, most recently, "Gulliver's Travels."

So, is this the end of Hollywood?

Hardly. Because even while domestic attendance is sinking, the popularity of American films overseas is on the rise. Foreign numbers increased last year, with the worldwide gross expected to top 2009's record $29.9 billion.

The rest of the world loves American movies — providing, of course, that those movies are big, colorful, action-packed and simplistic.

So while I've been basking in the glory of end-of-year releases like "The King's Speech" and "True Grit," I must keep reminding myself that movies that relish the English language are not necessarily going to be popular elsewhere, that the elements that make a movie worthwhile in my eyes may have only limited value on the worldwide market.

Or, as a colleague recently reminded me, "Explosions go 'boom' in any language."

Guess I'd better get used to it.





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