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Why Are Fewer Americans Going to the Movies?

Eclipse Taylor Lautner Kristen Stewart Robert PattinsonThe Twilight Saga: Eclipse with Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart, and Robert Pattinson. How to explain this spring’s wobbly box office figures? Some say moviegoers are suffering from “franchise fatigue.” Which helps to explain why Eclipse is expected to become one of the year’s biggest hits.
  • Why are fewer Americans (and Canadians?) going to the movies? Following the weakest Memorial Day weekend box office in nearly 20 years, Hollywood releases continue to underperform in the domestic market. What will make the current situation change? Fewer sequels and reboots? Better movies with more original storylines? Think again.

Domestic box office woes continue in late spring as Memorial Day weekend attendance is lowest in almost two decades

Hollywood’s summer blockbuster season officially began in early May with the release of Marvel Studios/Paramount Pictures’ worldwide blockbuster Iron Man 2 – which followed Walt Disney Pictures’ March/April blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, which had followed 20th Century Fox’s January/February blockbuster Avatar.

It has been a busy year at the global box office, including, of course, North America (for these purposes, the United States and Canada only). And yet this past Memorial Day weekend was the least attended in the domestic market in nearly two decades. If that weren’t all, this year’s spring box office in the U.S.-Canada combo is notably down compared to last year.

Why would that be?

Well, there are likely as many answers to this question as there are movies coming out. Possibilities include: Higher ticket prices, a still-wobbly economy, too many sequels and remakes, not enough sequels and remakes, few good movies that domestic audiences want to check out, few bad movies that domestic audiences want to check out, and so on.

Anyhow, below is a quick look at the sort of stuff American (and Canadian?) moviegoers seem to want (and not want) at their local movie houses.

Why are fewer American (and Canadian?) moviegoers going to the movies?

Moviegoers should be going to the movies.

Why aren’t they?

Well, to some extent they are – but not as members of giant herds like those Hollywood studios corralled earlier this year for mega-spectacles like Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, and Iron Man 2.

For starters, this past weekend, June 4–6, the North American box office was down a whopping 24 percent from the equivalent weekend last year.

It gets worse: Last Memorial Day weekend had the lowest box office take (unadjusted for inflation) – $186 million – since 2001 (when the top three movies were Pearl Harbor, Shrek, and The Mummy Returns) and the lowest number of tickets sold since 1993 (when the top three movies were CliffHanger, Made in America, and Dave).

There’s more: As per Hollywood.com calculations, if James Cameron’s late 2009 release Avatar is taken out of the picture, overall attendance in 2010 would be down 12.9 percent and revenues 7.1 percent from a year ago.

Some pundits and “top studio execs” have been blaming this box office debacle on the low quality of the movies being offered on American (and, one assumes, Canadian) screens; the sameness of the storylines; and an overabundance of sequels, remakes, and pre-branded properties. In other words, these people claim that domestic movie audiences want both quality and originality.

Do they?

Do audiences truly want ‘original, quality fare’?

Just never mind that The Karate Kid (a remake), Toy Story 3 (a sequel), The Last Airbender (based on an animated television series later turned into a video game), and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (also a sequel) are all expected to become summer hits. And later in the year, audiences will be offered Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 (another sequel), Little Fockers (one more sequel), and TRON: Legacy (a reboot), among other such eagerly awaited fare.

Christopher Nolan’s sci-fi thriller Inception – not a sequel, prequel, remake, reboot, or branded property – is the upcoming summer exception that proves the rule we’re supposed not to pay any attention to.

While we’re at it, let’s also choose to ignore the fact that among the Top Five domestic releases so far this year (remember, Avatar came out in late 2009), two are sequels (Iron Man 2, Shrek Forever After) and two are remakes (Alice in Wonderland, Clash of the Titans). How to Train Your Dragon is no original story either, as it’s based on a novel. Among these, only the last title was generally liked by critics.

There’s more: If you look at this year’s Top 20 films to date – like the innovative A Nightmare on Elm Street, the instant classic Valentine’s Day, the too-original-for-words Why Did I Get Married Too, the masterpiece Sex and the City 2 – you’ll notice that a mere two titles have any chance of being singled out next awards season in any of the “major” categories: The aforementioned How to Train Your Dragon and, with luck, the chart-topping Martin Scorsese-Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration Shutter Island (no. 6 on the Top 20 list).

Transformers: Revenge of the FallenTransformers: Revenge of the Fallen. Michael Bay’s actioner starring Autobots and Decepticons, and featuring a sprinkling of humans – Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel – was 2009’s biggest domestic blockbuster.

Give me your sequels, your reboots…

Now, if only Hollywood filmmakers and studio executives had learned a lesson or two from the recent past, when fearlessly original, breathlessly acclaimed movies were the big domestic hits year in, year out.

In 2009, for instance, Michael Bay’s one-of-a-kind classic Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the top movie domestically. Also among the Top Five were the sequels Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (at no. 2) and the more-popular-than-expected The Twilight Saga: New Moon (at no. 4).

And what about the biggest movie of 2008? That’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a sequel to Batman Begins, itself both a reboot and a comic-book adaptation.

The biggest movie of 2007? Spider-Man 3. Of 2006? Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Of 2005? Star Wars – Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Of 2004? Shrek 2. Of 2003? The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Of 2002? Spider-Man. Of 2001? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Of 2000? How the Grinch Stole Christmas!.

Admittedly, some of these titles received good (or even excellent) reviews. Some didn’t. All of them were sequels, prequels, and/or pre-branded properties.

Et tu, Avatar?

But what about Avatar, which remains – and will remain – the no. 1 hit of 2009–2010?

Well, James Cameron’s screenplay may be officially “original” – and you may personally find Avatar the greatest movie ever made anywhere, including all parallel universes – but the plot and characters of this futuristic fantasy adventure are anything but original, having liberally borrowed from a range of earlier narratives, from Pocahontas to The War of the Worlds.

In fact, one might go as far as to affirm that had its plot and characters been truly original and innovative, Avatar would have turned out to be a monumental box office bomb.

The days of La Dolce Vita, West Side Story, Tom Jones, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Midnight Cowboy, MASH, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango in Paris, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, All the President’s Men, Annie Hall – all among the Top Ten North American hits in their respective years of release – seem to be irrevocably over.

What about ‘smaller’ movies?

Back to 2010 at the North American box office:

As you go down this year’s chart, you’ll find The Ghost Writer, A Prophet, Ajami, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Remember Me, La Mission, Vincere, City Island, The Secret in Their Eyes, The Secret of Kells, Mother, Exit Through the Giftshop, The Runaways, Mid-August Lunch, Mother and Child, Harry Brown, Greenberg, Please Give, and Fish Tank.

Can these titles – most of which received positive notices, most of which earned less than $5 million domestically – be used as evidence that U.S. and Canadian moviegoers are desperately yearning for quality and/or originality, or at least for something that isn’t a big-studio rehash of something else?

What do you think?

Are domestic audiences staying away from movie houses because there’s a dearth of original, quality titles out there?

The silver lining

Now, it must be noted that the overseas market (which includes down yonder Mexico) hasn’t been suffering from any box office malaise.

Why would that be?

Perhaps international moviegoers – unlike their domestic counterparts – are too unsophisticated to care (or notice) whether the Hollywood product thrown at them are sequels, remakes, or rancid.

That might just help to explain why a number of big-budget movies that have underperformed in the U.S. and Canada have done far better abroad, among them Clash of the Titans, Shrek Forever After, Robin Hood, Sex and the City 2, and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

So, regardless of quality or originality, there is hope for Hollywood after all: Non-Canadian foreigners.

As for those sophisticated domestic moviegoers craving fresh, quality material … Well, give them Transformers 3, Iron Man 4, Twilight 5, Harry Potter 15, and Faster & Furiouser.


“Why Are Fewer Americans” endnotes

Taylor Lautner, Kristen Stewart, and Robert Pattinson The Twilight Saga: Eclipse movie image: Summit Entertainment.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen image: Hasbro | DreamWorks | Paramount Pictures.

“Why Are Fewer Americans Going to the Movies?” last updated in June 2022.

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6 comments

Sia -

I’m excited for Eclipse and I plan on watching it 4 times that week !

Reply
Angela -

I feel extremely offended by The Karate Kid’s trailer! I don’t think it presents the Chinese people fairly. I might be bais because I’m ethnic Chinese (I’m Canadian); but I think I can speak for the majority of the Chinese people that most of us don’t know kungfu, nor we see it as a way to solve our problems. I really believe that Jackie Chan made a mistake in agreeing to do this movie, and I sincerely hope that this movie flops in the box office.

Reply
Gamma -

Inception will probably garner critical love but I don’t think it’s going to be a hit. Audiences have already seen this type of film in The Matrix. Even the trailer causes confusion. Leo only does big box office with Scorcese. Ellen Page and Joseph Gordon-Levitt are box office poison.

The economy isn’t great. People want to see movies that are comfortable and they’ve been watching for a while. That’s why HP and Twilight will be huge hits. They have huge fan bases that read the books and want to watch the movies.

The Last Airbender was a Nickelodeon cartoon. I expect it to be one of the biggest losers of the summer. It has to compete with Eclipse, there is already controversy over changing the character’s races from Asian to white, and M. Night hasn’t been forgiven for The Happening. I’m surprised a studio greenlit it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo made over $80 million dollars before it ever played in a North American theater. The Runaways got mired in business problems with Apparition, but is probably going to do great sales on DVD and has international release to look forward to. A Prophet was nominated for several awards. I had to Google Remember Me and I’m not sure why you included it with the indies. It didn’t do much in box office, but it played wider than any of those other films, thus not making it a true indie.

Avatar was overhyped so the audience turned out to see it. I hope that 3D is not the future of film making because it takes the needed realism out of the films. Since it cost over $500 million and another $300 million or more in marketing, it needed the $2 billion to make a profit. It was very unoriginal and the acting was sub-par at best.

Smaller films will do better on DD and with cable deals. The same sequels, prequels, and books based on toys and movies will continue to do well in theaters because they are widely available.

Reply
PatriciaM. -

Remember Me did flop because it sucked. Only fangirls think it was a hit. It deserved to flop because Pattinson can’t act his way out of a paper bag, and Brosnan is ten years past his shelf life. Then they had that awful girl from Lost that no one even likes on television. To top it off, the writer plagiarized Catcher in the Rye and added 9/11 as an ending to try and prove that he was fresh and different. The critics got it right on that one. Then the robtards go on to say it was a small movie. Over 2100 screens is small? Advertisements on the Oscars and an NYC and London premiere are small? I’d love to see what you guys call big. The movie could have made a $100 million and it would have still been a piece of crap.

The box office is down so far this summer because there is nothing great out there. Of course, people are going to see big budget films that are familiar. Then you have films like SATC2, The Killers, and The Bounty Hunter which make me ashamed to be female. It’s a sad year. The same old crap will make money, but if you look hard enough there are some good performances out there.

Reply
belle -

You need to do your homework. Remember Me, which was actually a decent movie with solid performances by the entire cast, was never meant to be a big movie. Pattinson signed on before the first Twilight movie even came out. The media turned it into the movie that was going to show if Rob had Star Power, and built it up to be a bigger film that failed, so they could trash it. It had a 16 million budget, and has more than tripled that, which makes it a box office success. It made close to 20 million in the US, but you lumped it with the movies making 5 million or less. Add 20 million to the total it’s made in Europe, where the audiences are too unsophisticated, as you put it, to care, it comes to almost 60 million. What about the Green Zone. It had 100 million budget and bombed big time. Didn’t see it mentioned on your list. I’m sick of reading the same old garbage.

Reply
suzycreamcheese -

I don’t get what the big deal is about. Have ya SEEN the price of tickets?

Reply

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