The Box Office Blues
While the summer continues to take its toll on ice cream cones, the backs of beachgoers’ necks, and Donald Trump’s political capital, it seems to have found its greatest delight in looting the coffers of theaters everywhere. The past several months have not been kind to the wallets of studio executives or cinema chains–to be sure, the money continues to roll in for many, but at a slower than expected rate.
In fact, it seems that the entire year has been a step back for the movie industry. According to Box Office Mojo, ticket sales have so far taken a 2% hit in 2017, compared to the previous year, with 5 of the 7 total months elapsed (at time of writing) having seen decreases from 2016. In July, that drop was a whopping 12.2%, or 17 million dollars. These numbers are especially startling, given the boosterish increase in box office grosses from July 2015 to 2016. The weekend of August 25th was the industry’s worst since 2001, to top it all off.
Is this the end of the film industry as we now know it? Where ever will we be able to buy excessively-buttered popcorn and oversized fountain drinks after this summer? Do we now hear the trampling hooves of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse? I rather think not. As with any industry, the market for films has its ups and downs. Rest assured that those who have disposable income will always–or at least for the foreseeable future–make a pilgrimage to the theaters (or maybe just to their Netflix account) every few months to catch a tasteful touch of Tom Hanks or watch the crew of a spaceship stave off a ferocious alien beast. Data from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) shows a steady increase in global box office sales from 2011 to 2015. One noticeable trend during this period has been the increasing importance of the foreign market to ticket sales, an indicator that may be of great importance to studios in the future as they consider taking on various new projects. Appealing to the multitude of demographics and tastes in the U.S. and Canada is one thing; appealing to the audiences of other nations as well is another ballgame entirely.
Yet, the 2017 figures remain quite disheartening. Quality and risk-averse corporate heads may be partly to blame for these failures. The continuation of entrenched franchises can be a major source of revenue for the industry; however, it is often the case that sequels lack the vigour, nuance, and surprises of their progenitors. If people wisen up to this fact–and I believe a good deal already have–they may be less willing to shell out $15 or so on seeing the newest installment of a franchise. Cars 3 made less than any other film in its franchise on its opening weekend, as did Transformers 5 (counting only the live action films for that series), while Despicable Me 3 underperformed in its premier against all its siblings excluding the original.
But sometimes quality is not necessarily at fault. Alien: Covenant, the second film of the prequel series to the famous Alien franchise, and a movie which this author is perfectly happy to admit he saw twice in theaters and thoroughly enjoyed both times, is a prime example. Despite receiving mixed-to-positive reviews by credits (it holds a 71% on Rotten Tomatoes, which may not seem great but hey, that’s a B at McGill), the film’s opening weekend earned it only $36.1 million, down by 34% from the premier of its predecessor, the love-it-or-hate-it Prometheus. While this could be chocked up to the great debate within Alien fandom over Prometheus’ worth, it may also indicate a general boredom with sequels. We always hear that audiences crave “fresh” content; the problem is that “fresh” content is risky from the perspective of the studios. On the other hand, even with the potential slowing of the sequel market, new installments in old franchises are still fairly safe investments. Alien: Covenant did end up netting about $135 million worldwide (Deadline Hollywood), and Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2 was a marked improvement in financial terms over the original.
So all hope is not lost. Even if the studios continue to churn out shoddy-to-fairly-laudable sequels and ignore the pleas of the masses for original material, the industry will keep thriving, even if more cinemas begin to shutter their doors (theater giant AMC’s value decreased by 27% in early August after it projected bleak earnings for its quarter, according to Variety magazine). But if other methods of viewing–digital streaming, for example–are on the rise, studios will certainly need to adapt to their changing environments in order to keep their positions as the kings of the entertainment industry secure.
Come to think of it, a trip to the theater would be nice this weekend. Or maybe I’ll just stay home and watch Episode 8 of Twin Peaks again.