The box office has been looking lethargic for a while. Let's find out why.
Every summer, movie studios crank up the explosions, car chases, and CGI to 11 in order to sell more and more tickets and get more and more butts in seats. And every summer, someone on the internet writes about the death of the theatrical experience. Is this the year they’ll be proven right?
Sean Fennessey over at The Ringer has written a new article about the summer blockbuster season and the problems that studios have experienced trying to get their non-Marvel franchises to resonate with audiences.
Sean makes some great points, and we’re going to look a little closer at what he’s talking about. Let’s jump in:
One of the things Sean talks about in his article is the string of high-profile flops that have characterized this year’s blockbuster season. Films like Men In Black International, X-Men: Dark Phoenix, and Dumbo have all underwhelmed. Does the fact that they’re sequels, remakes, or spin-offs have anything to do with their poor box-office performance?
It’s a little more complicated than that. John Wick 3, Detective Pikachu, and Aladdin have all performed at or above expectations. Audiences are still showing up, but they’re pickier about what they want to watch. Films that don’t differentiate themselves from their predecessors or the marketplace at large will have problems breaking out. It might seem ballsy for Fox to take a chance on a Ryan Reynolds-voiced Pokemon character in a CGI/live action hybrid, but it paid off because there is absolutely nothing else like it in theaters.
The question studios have to ask isn’t “are audiences tired of this franchise?” It’s “is this movie going to give audiences something they can’t get anywhere else?” Sony Pictures chairman Tom Rothman calls this concept “theatricality.”
What Else Ya Got?
Another explanation for the summer’s box office slump is falling attendance. This is a trend that’s been building for a while, and 2019 is no exception. As Sean notes in his article:
“The annual box office is down nearly 9 percent in 2019, despite the fact that for the first time since 1993 the average ticket price has fallen from the previous year. The industry is on pace to sell its lowest number of total tickets since ’92.”
Why? The simple answer is competition. Not just from other films, but from all media. Think about this: you could go to the movies and drop $15 on a ticket to see Toy Story 4, or you could send that same $15 to Netflix and watch The Incredibles 2, Cars 3, Coco, Despicable Me 3, Ralph Breaks the Internet, and more.
It’s not just the streaming services that are competing for your eyeballs and leisure time. Even Netflix is feeling the squeeze from other entertainment options. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings said the biggest competition his company faces isn’t HBO, it’s the videogame Fortnite. Hollywood has traditionally aimed its movies at teenage boys, but that once-reliable audience has left for more pixelated pastures.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Although ticket prices decreased this year, their overall trend is up. Tickets + parking + concessions can cost a family of 4 around $100 to go to the movies. That’s not the casual outing it once was, but it also doesn’t mean movie theaters are going away. It just means things are going to change.
The best guess for the future of movie theaters is an experience that more closely approximates live theater: upgraded venues, special perks for attending certain showings (i.e. souvenirs for midnight screenings), and higher-quality food and drink offerings. It probably won’t get to Broadway prices, but you never know. I guarantee there’s someone out there who would pay $500 for a front-and-center seat at the 8pm Thursday showing of Avengers 7: Mid-Endgame.
We could also see movie theaters get more use out of their venues. HBO experimented with live screenings of Game of Thrones. Live sports, community screenings, and film festivals are also options for additional ways to fill seats.
People gathering in the dark to share a communal experience isn’t going away. Like the rest of the world, it’s just changing. Hollywood is still learning how to change with it.
Have you been to the movies this summer? What did you see? Let us know in the comments below.