As has been widely reported, movie theater attendance is up about 10% in 2009 over a similar period in early 2008. A paradoxical aspect of this stat is that the spike in attendance comes at a time when excitement about films is at a low ebb. People are watching movies, but they're not really talking about them or reading about them. They have become disposable entertainment - a cheap way to get out of the house. With the money rolling in, Hollywood isn't worried. But maybe it should be.
How do you measure "buzz?" Revenue is easy, but excitement is hard. There are no firm figures - it's something that has to be extrapolated from other indicators. I use three, only one of which is objective. Traffic to my website fluctuates with motion picture anticipation although, to be sure, what's anticipated in the on-line community is not always the same thing as what's anticipated in the more general movie-going population. Nevertheless, when people are "into" movies, when they're counting down the days to the release of a particular title (or titles), my traffic escalates. So far this year, it has been down, at least compared to where it was in December 2008. Obviously, this is not good for me, since poor traffic contributes to abysmal revenue numbers (fewer readers=fewer ad clicks), but a similar malaise has not afflicted multiplex cash registers. Still, while website traffic may not be a good indicator when it comes to the immediate health of the industry, it remains a reasonable barometer of overall passion. (Incidentally, while traffic increased during the days leading up to the release of Watchmen, it did not spike the way I expected it would, indicating that the film might not be as hotly anticipated as was being predicted in some quarters. That turned out to be correct.)
When people are excited about movies, they talk about them. They blog and "tweet" about them. They scour the web for analysis and discussion. So far this year, there's not much chatter. Movies have become like TV shows on big screens - entertainment that provides a brief escape from reality but leaves no lingering impression. People may be seeing more movies, but the movies they are seeing are eliciting less passionate responses. Movie-goers talk about films when they feel strongly about them, but the stuff in theaters today - even the biggest grossing titles - are not generating powerful feelings.
The final piece of the puzzle is represented by audience attentiveness during trailers. When people are excited about an upcoming movie, they stop talking and pay rapt attention when the trailer is shown. You can see this with some of the high-profile, upcoming summer movies. But did anyone interrupt a conversation to watch a trailer for Paul Blart: Mall Cop? The trailers for the 1Q2009 movies generated little in the way of interest. No buzz. High attendance, no excitement.
The answer to the question of "why?" relates to the underlying factor behind the increase in movie attendance. If we assume it has nothing to do with the product (and, as far as I can tell, Hollywood isn't suddenly making movies that are fundamentally more compelling than the ones that came out at this time in 2008), then there's something else at work. The 800-pound gorilla is the economy. One popular theory is that, with things so bleak in the real world, escapism is needed, and how better to escape from the day-to-day depression of bad mortgages, a tanking stock market, and increasing unemployment than to get lost in a movie? Films are accessible, relatively cheap, and offer a variety of experiences (comedies, thrillers, dramas, horror, etc.). Adults, who have been relying increasingly on the small-screen experience via DVDs on 46" flat-screen TVs, are returning to multiplexes because, in the ideal, it's a more satisfying to experience something communally on a large screen. It's easier to escape away from home than in the living room.
There are numbers to back this up. DVD and Blu-Ray sales are in the dumper. While rentals are up, the delta isn't enough to cover the drop-off in purchases. People are watching fewer movies at home and more movies in theaters. It fits the theory that escapism is a factor in why multiplexes are experiencing a surge.
One has to wonder if, when the economy improves, people will go back to their old habits. Multiplexes could, of course, forestall such an occurrence. If returning disaffected movie-goers found that things were cleaner, brighter, and better managed than before, that projection problems were minimal and immediately corrected, and that disruptive audience behavior was not tolerated, they might exhibit a renewed sense of excitement about attending theatrical screenings. Alas, that's not the case. The theater experience is no better today than it was a year ago. Attendance is up, but new employees are not being hired. I have experienced more projector-related problems in the last 3 months than during any similar span since I started reviewing movies. One in every three movies I see has some sort of issue. That kind of ratio will remind people why they stopped attending movies rather than encourage them to keep coming back.
And now the summer season is nearly upon us. That's the time when Hollywood lives or dies based on movie-goer excitement. $100 million is a big number for January, February, or March, but it's a minor hit in May, June, or July. The success of 2009 will depend, as it always does, on how multiplexes flourish during the summer months. That means getting huge numbers of people (primarily those under age 30) into theaters, and having many of them return multiple times. There are titles out there generating excitement (I won't list them here since everyone reading this already knows them), but are they enough? Could the lack of passion evident in the early months of 2009 become an albatross later in the year, when the routine movies of the autumn start to roll out? After the summer has shot its load, will people continue to flock to theaters to see movies they're not excited about, especially if the economy is starting to recover? Will the success of the mediocre fare available in 2009's winter fool Hollywood into a false sense of security?
By the time the ball next drops in Times Square, we'll know whether this unexpected early year box office "health" is a mirage, an aberration, or a reflection of a change in movie-going patterns. Hollywood is betting on the last option; my sense is it's a combination of the first two. The passage of time will prove one of us wrong.