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Domestic Box Office 2011: Fewest Tickets Sold Since 1995, But Dont Blame It on Sequels

Daniel Radcliffe, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Daniel Radcliffe in the biggest domestic hit of 2011: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2

In 2011, Hollywood movies should earn the major studios $10.2 billion at the North American box office. That's down 3.5 percent from 2010, according to Hollywood.com. An estimated 1.28 billion tickets have been sold this year, which represents a 4.4 percent decline from 2010 and the lowest figure since 1995, the year of the talking pig Babe and Mel Gibson's Braveheart, when admissions totaled 1.26 billion.

Among the suggested reasons for the downturn there are some that make perfect sense and some that are ludicrous. The weak U.S. economy matched with high ticket prices is almost undeniably keeping people away from movie houses. In fact, that has happened in the past, most notably during the height of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, when the majority of the big Hollywood studios posted heavy losses. Indeed, several almost went bankrupt.

The fact that movies nowadays can be watched on DVD or VOD about three months after they're released in theaters is another good reason for people to refuse to pay $12 or $15 or $18 for a movie ticket. That may also help to explain why kiddie flicks – or "family movies" – have, relatively speaking, fared poorly this year (e.g., Happy Feet Two, Arthur Christmas, The Muppets, and, to some extent, Kung Fu Panda 2). How many families can afford $100 weekends at the movies when parents, guardians, or what-have-you can rent a title for less than one-tenth of that amount and show it to an audience of four or five – or ten?

Now, to say that North Americans have grown tired of sequels is pretty absurd. The top seven domestic releases this year are all sequels:

Those seven movies combined have so far brought in $1.9 billion – or nearly 20 percent of the year's total take. And the current hit at American and Canadian movie theaters is none other than Brad Bird/Tom Cruise/Jeremy Renner/Paula Patton's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. As clearly indicated by its title, that's the fourth installment in Cruise's Mission: Impossible decade-long franchise.

As for the availability of new gadgets keeping people busy at home staring at their iPads and iPods ... Well, does that mean only North Americans have access to those? Business overseas has remained quite strong. This year, for instance, as per Screen International Paramount became the first Hollywood studio ever to pass the $3 billion mark abroad.

One Warner Bros. general sales manager has placed some of the blame for the domestic downturn on more "gaming and social-networking opportunities." But wait. Wasn't "gaming," Twitter, Facebook, etc. all very much available when Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes came out in late 2009? That Warner Bros. release starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law fared much better domestically than the current sequel, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

It would be interesting to discover why some troubled European economies such as France and Germany continue to generate solid box office revenues in US dollars despite not only the eurozone economic turmoil, but also a devaluation of the euro itself in the last five months.

In France, for instance, the top two movies of 2011 are Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's socially conscious comedy-drama The Intouchables / The Intouchables, starring François Cluzet and Omar Sy, and the Dany Boon/Benoît Poelvoorde comedy Rien à déclarer / Nothing to Declare. Those two titles have a combined gross of nearly $200m according to the Box Office Mojo chart. France's top two movies of 2010, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 and Shrek Forever After earned less than $100m.

Perhaps the French don't have access to video games, Facebook, or Apple products?

Daniel Radcliffe/Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 picture: Jaap Buitendijk / Warner Bros.

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