- 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 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).
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).
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.