Box office blahs: How to fix Hollywood’s ticket sales slump

There’s no denying “The Avengers” was a huge hit this summer at the box office. The superhero mash-up took in an impressive $1.5 billion worldwide, landing in third place on the list of highest-grossing films of all time.

However, while successes like “The Avengers” — and other recent blockbusters such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Dark Knight Rises” — have provided a definite boost to the film industry, overall Hollywood has been facing a decline in ticket sales. According to the New York Times, North American ticket sales actually declined 3 percent this summer. Attendance for this period was the lowest it’s been since 1993, the first year these types of statistics began to be tracked. There seemed to be as many high-profile flops — such as “Battleship” and the “Total Recall” remake — as successes. This slump has been continuing for the past several years, and it understandably has studio executives feeling a little concerned.

So, what’s causing this decline? Why aren’t people going to the movies as often as they used to, and how can theaters win audiences back?

I think part of the reason people aren’t going to the movies as often anymore is simply because movie tickets are so expensive — and I’m not sure there’s much local movie theaters can do to remedy this. Due to inflation, costs to make movies go up over time, and popular, special effects-heavy action/adventure epics require bigger budgets. Movie theaters don’t make a lot of money on movie tickets (that’s why they charge so much for concessions), so lowering ticket prices likely isn’t an effective solution.

Movie theaters also are competing against more media, another fact that can’t really be avoided. People have the choice of watching cable TV, using instant streaming services such as Netflix, or even just popping in a DVD at home; they don’t have to go to the theater in order to watch a movie. The magic of 3-D (a technology that has increased ticket prices) is perhaps wearing off, as well.

While I certainly don’t think we’re watching the demise of the movie theater, I do think Hollywood needs to change the way it does business. Hollywood has to find a way to compel people to go to the movie theater again, and the best method is probably by making more movies that people want to see. This may sound like an oversimplification, but it actually isn’t as easy as it appears.

Right now, Hollywood seems to have the mentality that what people want to see is “more of the same.” If a concept worked in the past, it should work again, right? That’s why we’ve been seeing so many sequels and remakes. However, trying to milk a trend for all it’s worth can actually do more harm than good in the long run, and Hollywood can over-use a topic.

I have nothing against sequels — in fact, some of my favorite movies are sequels (“The Empire Strikes Back,” “Toy Story 3,” etc.). I want to see another “Avengers” movie, and I’m really looking forward to the follow-up to J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” reboot. But not every film that becomes a blockbuster needs a sequel, and sometimes studios try too hard to come up with an idea for a sequel just so they can make more money. The same goes for remakes; sometimes, it’s just not possible to replicate the original film’s success. Bad sequels and remakes can turn people away from the movies just as easily as good sequels and remakes can draw them to the theater (though a good remake is, I believe, even harder to pull off than a good sequel).

Certain movies, such as superhero films, lend themselves to sequels. There’s plenty of source material to keep drawing on, and as long as the writing and acting are solid, I’d love to see companies like Marvel keep producing superhero films. But I think the time has come for Hollywood to be a little more careful about its sequels and to make sure it isn’t pushing certain concepts too far.

I’d also like to see studios explore some new ideas. I know this is risky, because it can be tough to get audiences to respond to something that’s unfamiliar. But solid, well-planned marketing campaigns and positive word of mouth can do a lot for a film. Perhaps studios should also pursue more smaller films, ones without gargantuan special effects budgets. These films may not make as much money as summer tent-poles like “Transformers,” but because they have smaller budgets to start with, they’ll have a better chance at turning a profit. I’d like to see more clever, original comedies (moving beyond the same tired, recycled jokes and concepts we’ve all seen too many times before), as well as more thought-provoking science fiction like “Looper” and “Prometheus.”

Hollywood perhaps needs to learn a lesson from TV, as well. An argument could be made that the best comedy, drama and even science fiction/fantasy right now is happening on the small screen. Often, you can find better performances and writing on television than in the movie theater. Hollywood should take some cues from TV’s character-driven plotlines and creative concepts and use this to breathe some new life into the films it produces.

Finally, I think Hollywood should do a better job of promoting the movie-going experience as a whole — not just the films themselves. Movie tickets are expensive, but I still go to the theater fairly often simply because I love the experience. I know I’m somewhat sentimental, but to me there’s something special and magical about sitting in a theater and watching the lights go down and the curtain go up before a movie. Seeing a movie for the first time up on a giant screen with a crowd of people adds to a film’s impact. Even with expensive home theater systems, this just isn’t something you can replicate in your basement. Hollywood needs to remind customers of why that experience is worth paying a little extra money for.

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4 thoughts on “Box office blahs: How to fix Hollywood’s ticket sales slump

  1. Nice piece…

    I agree that Hollywood needs to offer more orginial fare, even though they see that as a risk. It’s more of a hit and miss game, but the margin that they gain from the bigger hits hopefully would overcome their losses on the flops. 😀

    Improving the theatre experience would be a plus, too. It’s not even so much the ticket price as the concessions, they’re ridiculous now! I think some in theatre policing for talkers and people with phones would be a cheap way to enforce common courtesy and improve the experience for everyone. 😀

  2. Thanks! 🙂 Yes, I also wish concessions weren’t priced so highly. I know they have to make a profit, but many times now I just pass on the popcorn because it’s so costly. I also think it’s a good idea to have stricter policies for talkers and cell phone use would be good. 🙂

  3. Great article.

    Most of the time the theater chain has made a deal that 100% of the ticket price goes to the distributor. Frequently this is the case opening weekend with blockbusters and first week and often second weekend. You can imagine that this is when the most tickets are sold. The theater chain has to make their money in the weeks and months that follow, with their percentage of the ticket price going up like 10% every week.. So Concessions especially during the summer, is the entirety of their income.

    Something you say about TV gives me an idea. The most successful movies have the built in sequel. James Bond, Batman, Spiderman, Horror movies. Perhaps if that were the norm and every film were a series or a trilogy (not that it doesn’t seem like that already). Giving writers more pages to develop the story and characters while making directors have to bring the audience back for a second and third movie (with the cliffhanger? maybe). Before my time when theaters were the only place to get moving pictures, serials were the thing. Bring back the repeat business that’s built into the story. You give them a full movie experience but they have to come back. TV gets a full season to develop a character but still have to get the viewer hooked in the first episode.

    Also the movie reviewer needs to get more respect. There was a time when I wouldn’t see a movie unless BOTH Siskel AND Ebert liked it. Before that it was the guy from ABC I can’t think of his name and with Indie films it was Vincent Canby from the NYTimes or the guys from The Village Voice. Bring back the screening for reviewers. You find a reviewer you trust and go see movies they suggest. A lot of movies aren’t even screened because they know they are not good. Why are you releasing them if you know they’re bad?

    I blame Dino De Laurentiis he was the guy who popularized the distribution model where the hype was the whole thing. Get the theater full for that first weekend and first week (remember 100% goes to them) and not care if the sales drop off dramatically. You just build the hype up to a frenzy and not let a reviewer see the film. The distributor makes his money but the movie is a flop. You’ve insured it off the hype. So you make money off the loss. I hated that guy. He ruined the business.

    Fantastic Post.

    • Thank you! 🙂 I like your idea of bringing back the idea of movie serials, with more cliffhangers, like “Empire Strikes Back.” That would be a good idea to bring audiences back into the theaters and would maybe encourage directors to develop more complex stories, as opposed to some sequels which feel a little “after the fact.”

      I also think you bring up a good point about movie reviewers. Now it seems like the films that are most successful are the ones with the best publicity campaigns or the most hype. Movies can get terrible reviews but still make millions.

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