Sour Gripes and Fearless Predictions

January 05, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

Let me begin this look back/gaze ahead by remarking on the webmaster's equivalent of "sticker shock." I'm referring to January ad revenue. Historically, it has always been low at the time of the calendar change, but in 2010, it's positively putrid. Google has fallen off the Earth. Click-through totals aren't great, but it's hard to believe the pathetic numbers I'm crunching - I don't even need an abacus; fingers are sufficient (and no chisenbop required). It probably wouldn't be so bad if the October-December 2009 period hadn't provided false hope, but advertisers don't spend in January. I can understand the growing belief in the print and broadcast circles that ad revenue simply isn't enough for continued health and sustenance. If the website was my only source of income, I'd be on suicide watch right about now. It will be interesting to see what happens to ReelViews traffic over the next month. I can't see readers rushing to the site to seek out reviews of the likes of Leap Year and The Book of Eli. Things may not start looking up until Shutter Island, and that's late February.

Having gotten that off my chest, it's time to turn my attention to what has become an annual ritual - making a few predictions for the year to come and looking back at how badly I blew the ones I made a year ago. A lot of people make predictions, but few are honest enough to revisit their previous prognostications. Those looking for the 2009 edition of this column can follow this link.

2009 #1: If there is an actors' strike, it will not seriously derail either TV or movie production schedules Well, there wasn't an actors' strike. There was a lot of strife and posturing, but it all came to naught.

2009 #2: Slumdog Millionaire will win the Best Picture Oscar. Since this was made at the beginning of January before the nominations were announced, it's not as big a slam-dunk as it might seem to have been. Still, it's always nice to make one prediction that has a reasonably good chance of coming true.

2009 #3: Two movies will gross more than $300 million (domestic) in calendar year 2009. In the text for the original prediction, I named the second Transformers movie and the latest Harry Potter sequel (becoming the first HP movie to cross the $300 million mark). I was correct on both accounts. I also mentioned that Star Trek wouldn't make it, which was also right. What about Avatar, you ask? Here's what I wrote: "Finally, there's an excellent chance that James Cameron's Avatar will streak past $300 million, but not all in 2009. The film is an end-of-the-year release and will likely garner a portion of its riches in 2010. (Consider the box office patterns of Cameron's previous feature.)" As of midnight on December 31, 2009, Avatar was at about $285 million; it didn't pass the $300 million mark until New Year's Day. This prediction, unlike many I make, was right on target. I'm actually kind of proud of that.

2009 #4: 2009 ticket sales will be down more than 5% versus 2008 ticket sales Not quite. The final tally is that ticket sales were up 10% over 2008. It may be counter-intuitive given the economy, but there are reasons. The thing I didn't consider is that movies are easily the most affordable type of out-of-the-house entertainment. Theater (stage), concert, and sporting event ticket sales were down in 2009. Instead of going the Cadillac route of paying $100 to see a live event, people paid $7.50 to see a movie. Easier on the wallet and more convenient.

2009 #5: Watchmen will see the light of day, but not on March 6. No, it opened on schedule, with all the legal issues resolved. Too bad the movie was such a non-event.

2009 Bonus Prediction (Having nothing to do with movies): The Phillies will not win the World Series again. Well, they got there but their 2008 phenom and mid-season aging war horse acquisition weren't up to the tasks. Congrats to the Yankees - they were the better team. (In all honesty, although I thought the Phillies were the best NL team at the end of the season, I would have put them behind three AL teams: Yankees, Angels, Red Sox - any of those three probably would have beaten them in a 7-game series.)

Now, this year's four fearless predictions:

2010 #1: Titanic will sink. In its first 17 days in theaters, Avatar has already surpassed the $350 million mark (domestically). More impressively, it has shown little inclination to slow down. The post-holiday return to work and school will probably apply a little braking to the film's runaway revenue generation, but it's hard imagining anything knocking this behemoth off the tracks for a while, especially considering how weak most of the January releases are in terms of drawing power. If the remaining four January weekends can average in the $35-45 million range (with an additional $7-10 million per Monday-Thursday period), Avatar will be closing in on the $550 million mark and taking direct aim at Titanic by the time the groundhog emerges. At this point, barring an unexpected blown tread, I believe Cameron 2009 will overtake Cameron 1997, at least in terms of unadjusted domestic dollars. When it comes to tickets sold, that's another matter. Although the 2009 average ticket price is $7.19, it's around $8.50 for Avatar since there's a $3 surcharge ($4 in some locales) tacked on to about 1/2 of the screens (IMAX & digital 3D). To beat Titanic's # of tickets, its domestic gross would have to exceed $1.1 billion, and that ain't gonna happen.

2010 #2: The Hurt Locker will win the Best Picture Oscar. It's a tighter race than last year, though, but The Hurt Locker seems to be the production to beat, at least at the moment. Up in the Air looks like a strong contender and, if Avatar keeps raking in the dough, Hollywood may want to honor it, much as Titanic was feted a dozen years ago. If there's a dark horse, it's Precious, but none of the six other nominees - whatever they may be - stand a chance.

2010 #3: Five movies will gross more than $300 million (domestic) in calendar year 2010. My gut tells me Iron Man 2 will lead the hit parade, probably heading north of $400 million. The summer's two family-friendly animated sequels, Shrek 4 and Toy Story 3 should also bring home a ton of money, especially with the 3D surcharge to inflate their takings. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One) should slip over the line as well. What's #5? How about Little Fockers? Doesn't sound reasonable? Adjust the gross of Meet the Fockers for inflation and it exceeds $300 million by about 7%. Admittedly, this movie might not do as well, but in this climate, would you want to bet against it?

2010 #4: 2010 ticket sales will rise and fall in an inverse relationship to the price of gasoline. In an ideal world, the 2010 box office would roughly match that of 2009, but we don't live in an ideal world. As the global economy recovers, there will be a strong inflationary pressure on oil, which will likely drive up the price of gas. Moderate increases won't impact movie ticket sales. But if things become extreme, Netflix will be the big winner and multiplexes will be the big losers. Here's how I think things will break down:
If the annual average gas price is $3 per gallon or lower (regular unleaded): 2010 box office flat (versus 2009)
If the annual average gas price is between $3 and $4 per gallon: 2010 box office slightly down (<3%)
If the annual average gas price is between $4 and $5 per gallon: 2010 box office moderately down (<7%, >3%)
If the annual average gas price is between $5 and $7.50 per gallon: 2010 box office significantly down (<10%, >7%)
If the annual average gas price is higher than $7.50 per gallon: 2010 box office will crash and burn (>10%)

To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only one predicting a direct correlation between gas prices and box office income, so this is about as far out on a limb as someone can go. Note, however, that I'm not making prognosticating what gasoline will actually do (although I have theories - more about that in a future column when I discuss the movie Collapse).

2010 Bonus Prediction (Having nothing to do with movies): The Phillies will return to the World Series for the third consecutive year. And probably lose to the Yankees again. Their off-season moves have continued to place them at the top of the NL, and they have moved ahead of the Angels in the AL. They're also probably close to the Red Sox, although not quite on par. But the Yankees are still a few strides ahead, even if they're done tinkering with their roster. Baseball is a funny game and the best team on paper isn't always the best team on the field. Still, all things being equal, it wouldn't surprise me if the last teams standing in October 2010 are the Phillies and the Yankees.