Box office slump not necessarily a bad omen for film industry

by Matt Hill | 1/5/06 6:00am

You hear it every day -- on the news, in the paper, on TV and, hell, walking out of the theater from a 7 p.m. showing of "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- but is it really true? It's Hollywood's biggest fear, and it's the frightening conclusion that, for an entire year, studio executives and optimistic moviegoers alike have been trying to avoid. Sure, the box office has been slumping ever since about mid-spring, but people have come up with plenty of possible reasons why. "People are staying home," they have said, "because their TVs are bigger and better, wider and clearer, TiVo-equipped and ready for OnDemand. Who wants to go to a theater when you've got all that?"

True, I guess. And what's more, movie theaters have the added disadvantages of commercials, crying babies, candy wrappers that seem to take ages to unravel, ticket that cost almost ten dollars a pop, exorbitant concession prices and tank-top-clad guys named Ed who sit in the front row and laugh their way through "Munich" as though they were watching "Eurotrip."

But most of that has always been part of the theater-going experience, and probably always will be as long as Loews and Showcase Cinemas still exist. Seeing a movie with a bunch of people will always come with the joys, quirks and annoyances of being in huge crowds. And maybe that's not always so bad. For instance, would "Wedding Crashers" have been half as funny without a packed theater that erupted in laughter every time Vince Vaughn opened his mouth? (On second thought, yes, it probably would have been. But sometimes it's fun to laugh along with a bunch of guys like Ed, so long as they're laughing at the right thing.)

So if theaters -- which, let's be honest, weren't very different in 2003 and 2004, both very successful years for Hollywood -- aren't the real problem, then what is?

One possibility, of course, is that there isn't a problem at all. It's true: while 2005 may have been a downer in many ways for the movies, the two preceding years were big successes, with box office numbers rising up past the record marks on many occasions. 2004's final tally of $9.43 billion was the highest intake ever, and while 2005's total, $8.95 billion, is indeed substantially lower, considering the abnormally lucrative year that preceded it, 2005 wasn't really that disappointing.

Along those lines, then, maybe it was just a stroke of bad luck. Maybe 2005 simply happened to be missing a real "event" film, a movie that everyone simply had to see, and simply had to tell their sisters and their moms and their grandpas to see -- look at 2003's surprise hit "Pirates of the Caribbean," or the same year's more-predictable success, "The Return of the King." Or maybe 2005 was just missing a movie that stirred a lot of controversy or espoused dinner-table conversations and spit-spraying, red-faced debates like "The Passion of the Christ" and "Fahrenheit 9/11" did in 2004. Maybe those kinds of movies are like wild cards in a deck and 2005 was just dealt a bad hand.

Still, though, regardless of the numbers or the theories that box office analysts dish out, it's somewhat disturbing to think of what actually were the expected hits that came out this year (and there were many): "Revenge of the Sith," "War of the Worlds," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," "The Chronicles of Narnia" and "King Kong," to name the big ones. Of those, consider how many were remakes and how many were franchise films: all of them. (Okay, "Narnia" is the exception, but it's an adaptation, and it won't be long before "Prince Caspian" comes along).

It's probably not going to change, either: 2006's big movies see the return of Superman and the film version of Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

So where are Hollywood's big, bold and fresh new ideas? Most would say all the ideas are coming from the independent studios, and I would agree. It's reflected in the year-end awards, too: all five of the Golden Globe nominees for Best Picture (Drama) are from the independents, and it could possibly be a similar situation come Oscar time, unless "Walk the Line" (likely) or "King Kong" (unlikely) sneak into the race.

Maybe we're nearing the end of the blockbuster era that began with "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and carried on through "The Lord of the Rings." And maybe we're heading back towards that exciting time that most film buffs recall with misty eyes: the late sixties and seventies, when such socially-conscious and groundbreaking films as "Bonnie and Clyde," "The Graduate," "American Graffiti," "Chinatown" and "The Godfather" were the "event" movies of their time.

So maybe we're not in a down time, then, but a transitional period: a time when movies and audiences will learn to grow, and hey, maybe box office numbers will too.

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