In 2010 total worldwide Hollywood box office was around $31.8 billion, sharply up from 2009. In 2011 that dropped by 3% and Hollywood and movie critics have been kvetching about it ever since. This morning on CBS’s Sunday Morning they featured an opinion piece on the decline in revenues that I found jaw-droppingly obtuse. The assertion of the critic: that the reason for the decline is that Hollywood didn’t produce enough blockbusters.
For reasons I’ll explain later I find this completely circular.
Back at the end of 2011 Roger Ebert wrote a more thoughtful consideration of the decline in revenues. He listed six reasons:
- No must-see mass-market movie
- Ticket prices are too high.
- Unpleasant theater experience.
- Refreshment prices are too high.
- Competition from other forms of delivery.
- Lack of choice (the movieplexes all show the same list of the same, indistinguishable pictures)
The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can’t depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.
I think he’s onto something with his last two points and, maybe, with the third but I think the others are misplaced criticisms or, as I mentioned above, circular.
Everybody complains about the high prices at the movie theater but IMO that’s mostly just misplaced nostalgia. In the golden year of 1939 movie tickets cost a quarter a piece and you could get a bag of popcorn and a coke for a dime and a nickel, respectively. Relative to median income of $1,800 that was just about .01%. Today a movie ticket costs $8 and popcorn and a beverage will set you back another $12. Relative to today’s median income that’s .01%.
Let me explain why I think that the reasoning on blockbusters is circular. The big production and distribution companies have a strategy for making money. The strategy, essentially, is to win the lottery: produce big, expensive, megahits and make money through worldwide distribution. Worldwide distribution in these big, glossy megahits implies lots of action and not much dialogue. Drawing room comedies don’t translate well (not to mention social satire or drama).
It’s not the only possible strategy. Most people don’t realize it but nowadays the viewership for Bollywood movies is bigger than that for Hollywood movies. The Bollywood strategy is different from the Hollywood strategy. Basically, it’s give people what they want, make the picture for a low cost, and do it in volume. I’ve only seen a handful of Bollywood pictures but every one of them seems like an explosion in the genre factory. They’re combinations of Busby Berkeley musicals, pretty boys, pretty girls, love story, family drama, comedy, and action/adventure. In my experience they tend not to be lurid, violent, or explicitly sexual.
When I think of why the Hollywood strategy is failing I blame Michael Bay. To my eye his movies are big, loud, muddled, incoherent action sequences in which the only role for women is to be leered at. That can be fun for a few minutes but gets tedious when stretched into hours and worse when replicated into endless numbered sequels, each more haphazardly made and thinly plotted than the last.
Worse yet for the Hollywood strategy, its audience is evaporating. Pre-teenage and teenage boys are much more likely to be playing games on their phones, tablets, or game consoles than they are to be going to the movies or even watching them at home so, unsurprisingly, U. S. grosses for videogames are exceeding box office grosses at a significantly lower cost of production and distribution cost.
IMO television, cable, and Internet streaming will increasingly be the sources of the variety that Roger Ebert mentions and Hollywood pictures will continue a long, dreary slide.
To clarify the point I’m trying to make I don’t think that Hollywood isn’t making as much money as it thinks it should be because it isn’t making enough blockbusters. I think it isn’t making as much money as it thinks it should because it has adopted a strategy that requires it to make ever more ever more expensive blockbusters, it refuses to change that strategy with the times, and that strategy is running out of steam.