How Bad Is It?

April 07, 2008
A thought by James Berardinelli

A slump seems to be a poor way to define the free-fall situation in which the movie industry finds itself. Hollywood has only itself to blame. When the multiplex output consists of one lame film after another, what could the expectations be? This isn't even about quality; it's about energy. No one is excited about movies now because there's nothing out there to be excited about. The industry is banking on the big May releases like Iron Man and Indiana Jones 4 to re-invigorate the box office, and no doubt they will. But a nagging concern remains: when audiences have become accustomed to not going to the movies on a regular basis, how many simply won't come back, even for a big event? For a movie that grosses $300 million, a loss of as little as 10% of the audience represents $30 million. That's a staggering number. It's impossible at this point to measure the long-term damage that three months of lifeless movies have produced, but it wouldn't surprise me if some of the summer's big guns don't live up to expectations.

But where are we now, and how bad is it? It's ironic that I should be asking that question. In late January, the box office was doing so well that pundits were predicting a record-setting year. They may have been right, but not in ways that will make anyone who cares about Hollywood's output happy. Gloom and doom are the watchwords. I don't delight in them. I wish things would turn around. It hurts me financially when the landscape is this bleak. But I don't believe in hiding my head in the sand. Box office receipts are down. DVD sales are stagnant. A summer SAG strike looms. And the economy is in recession. This is not a happy recipe.

This past weekend's tally represented a 28% decline over the same weekend last year. Assuming roughly a $100 million box office, that means about $30 million less this year. Extrapolate that over a month, and it's the budget of one summer blockbuster. This is the seventh week in eight in which the 2008 box office has shown a double-digit percentage decline over the 2007 box office. Why the difference? 2007 stuck all the lifeless bombs in January and February, then started ramping up with 300 in early March. By this time last year, people were bubbling with anticipation. Quality-wise, the movies may not have been better, but they had juice. This year, aside from the mid-January hyped release of Cloverfield, there has been nothing. And there continues to be nothing. Something is needed to prime the pump. By the time that happens, let's hope the well hasn't run dry.

My website traffic statistics are a good barometer of the general level of movie interest exhibited by those surfing the net, and the story it tells is no different from the one related by the box office cash registers. My average daily traffic during "normal" periods of activity is about 17,000 visitors per day (more on Fridays and Saturdays, less on Tuesdays and Wednesdays). My baseline number, which represents the traffic I get from regular readers who visit frequently regardless of what's playing or not playing, is about 10,000 per day. Here are some numbers to ponder...

Average daily number of visitors in January: 18,200
Average daily number of visitors in February: 16,800
Average daily number of visitors in March: 15,100
Average daily number of visitors in April (thus far): 11,700

The highest daily traffic of the year occurred on January 18 (the day Cloverfield opened): 32,200 visitors. The lowest occurred last Wednesday: 10,600 visitors - right around the baseline. The average Friday "spike" typically hits around 20,000 visitors (unless there's a big release, then it goes much higher). What about last Friday? 13,800 visitors. In other words, not many people cared enough to seek out ratings or reviews. It's not just ReelViews. Webmasters of other movie-related sites have reported similar patterns.

Some readers may believe I gain some perverse delight in this situation but, considering that I'm losing hundreds of dollars each week as a result, I can assure everyone that's not the case. (The equation is simple: more traffic equates to more ad clicks and more ad clicks equates to more dollars. There's no way I can make up the lost money of 50,000 fewer visitors per week.) I want people to be excited about movies, and not just for financial reasons. It's a lot more fun being a critic when people are talking about movies rather than shrugging their shoulders.

Is there hope before Iron Man? Perhaps. On April 18, Forgetting Sarah Marshall opens and that's the kind of movie that can kick-start things a little. It won't be a monster hit, but it should play well enough with the college crowd to generate some buzz. The week after, the Harold and Kumar sequel arrives. Then it's May and (hopefully), the skies will brighten. But will they brighten sufficiently to make everyone forget about the woes of February, March, and April, or will storm clouds linger on the horizon? Only time will tell.