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Published: Friday, 7/8/2011

COMMENTARY

Hollywood formula lacks mojo

BY KIRK BAIRD
CULTURE SHOCK

We're at the mid-way point of the summer movie season. And the numbers for Hollywood don't look good.

Total movie ticket revenues are down by 8.3 percent from last year and 5.9 percent from 2009, according to box-office tracking Web site, boxofficemojo.com. The average ticket price essentially is the same as last year too -- $7.86 in 2011 to $7.89 in 2010 -- and 36 cents higher than in 2009. So even though moviegoers are paying more for movies now compared to two years ago, movies still are making less money.

What gives? The truth is that higher ticket prices have masked a trend in Hollywood for several years: declining ticket sales.

Boxofficemojo.com reported that June's box-office tally was down 5 percent from June 2010, and that with an estimated 128 million tickets sold, last month was "the least-attended June since 2000, and it was more than 10 percent below the average of this century."

In fact, beginning in 2000, ticket sales have failed to exceed the previous year's sales seven times. That happened four times between 1990 and 1999 and only three times from 1980 to 1989.

Could it be higher ticket prices are keeping audiences away? Perhaps, though 2009 saw an average increase of 32 cents in the average ticket price from 2008 and still managed to bring in 5.3 percent more moviegoers than the year before. It's not the down economy either, since history shows that audiences love to escape to movies during hard times.

Or maybe, just maybe, it could be that audiences are growing wise to Hollywood and its summer movie formula of big-budgeted movies with top stars and aggressive marketing campaigns, and very little substance.

In May, 2010, we had Iron Man 2, Robin Hood, MacGruber, Shrek Forever After, Sex and the City 2, and Prince of Persia: the Sands of Time. That's one (Iron Man 2) for six, by my count, of box-office winners. June of that year was slightly better, with Toy Story 3, Karate Kid, and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse making big money out of 11 or so big releases. And out of 10 major films from last July, three -- Inception, Despicable Me, and Salt -- made a substantial impact at the box office. I don't count August since it's more or less become a dumping ground for studios.

It's even gloomier so far this summer domestically, with only the box-office blast of Transformers: Dark of the Moon to help, and the arrival next week of the Harry Potter finale. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, by the way, made a billion dollars with its overseas haul, but domestically it's only generated about $235 million, which is $75 million less than the first in the series in 2003.

Even the always reliable Pixar is facing the prospect of a disappointment with Cars 2. The animated sequel has made nearly $127 million domestically, so it should at least pass $163 million, which is how much A Bug's Life made. That was in 1998, when average ticket prices were $4.69, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners. If you adjust that box-office number to today's inflation, it's now a $226 million film domestically. Cars 2 isn't going to match that number.

These kinds of numbers have a clear message attached to them about audience disenchantment with what's being released to movie theaters.

And if the studio heads aren't listening to what moviegoers are telling them, I'm sure their corporate accountants are.

Contact Kirk Baird at kbaird@theblade.com or 419-724-6734. Follow him on his blog, toledoblade.com/cultureshock, or on Twitter, @bladepopculture.



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