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Friday, June 24, 2005


Cashiers du cinema

If you're the type to follow the latest box office figures when they are released by the Hollywood studios following each weekend, you're likely quite accustomed to headlines and ledes by entertainment reporters bemoaning the box office slump in which the industy now finds itself entrenched. "17 Weeks - Worst Ever!" they announce.

Two quick points of analysis:

1) The "slump" is calculated by comparing this year's numbers with last year's. Now, let's consider 2004's big films up to this point: The Passion of the Christ, Shrek 2, Spider-man 2; respectively, $370 million in the spring - never happens!, $441 mil. - #3 All-Time Domestic, and $373 million - not too shabby.

How in the world do you come to "expect" that your successes will continue, at a pace of averaging almost $400 million for your top three flicks? You're insane if you do, and all the blather about a box-office nosedive is essentially a bunch of hot air. Yes, theater attendance is down, but such has been the overall trend since the 1950s! The introduction of television gave entertainment consumers another option, much to the chagrin, initially, of the studio bosses. And broadcast television in the past decades has seen a steady decline in ratings due to (among the innumerable possible entertainment choices now available) cable and satellite TV, video games, the internet, etc. etc. What can a company do when faced with encroaching comptetive industries? Business Management 101 says: Open up new revenue streams! (Not to mention a few Swiss bank accounts - see below, number two.) Bottom line, last year was extraordinary and the self-serving press is just manufacturing a Hollywood-worthy comeback story. You'll see--whenever a weekend's numbers are once again bigger than last year's, the columnists will be tripping over themselves to laud the conquering hero-movie, and for a few days, all will be lovely in LaLaLand.

2) Ahh yes, the "woe is us" contingent is all bent of shape over the "disappointing" grosses of this year's crop of popcorn seat-packers. What few writers care to report is that the actual cash inflow to the Big Six (or is it Seven... Six and a Half?) Studios is, in fact, greater than ever because of the home video/DVD phenomenon, except in glib references to rather blatantly flawed surveys indicating that more people nowadays prefer to watch movies at home (or hyperbolic reports on piracy gone rampant). It seems that to be in the studios' best interests not to report that overall inflation-corrected receipts have increased by $9.8 billion (some 31%) just between 2000 and 2003, with an even more incredible jump in revenue between the studios' supposed pre-TV golden age, for this doesn't necessarily make as good "box-office-as-horserace" copy, and furthermore cannot feasibly work the reader into a "shame-on-me, I'm not going to the movies enough" tizzy. For more on the "naughty downloaders ruin our profits" *chuckle* angle, see this fascinating article: Video Sales Abroad Are Good News in Hollywood. Shhh. by Ross Johnson.

Edward Jay Epstein, whose personal page I just linked to, points out in Slate magazine that in this new era, theatrical ticket sales are a miniscule, nearly insignificant slice of the pie, under 20%, whereas of course before that was not just Hollywood's bread and butter, it was all they had. But perhaps the Hollywood press would prefer to lament in echo-chamber groupthink mode, while the movie industry cries all the way to the bank.



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