Summer Breeze

August 06, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

As temperatures are finally starting to warm up in the Northeastern United States and Eastern Canada, the domestic box office is cooling down. After a record-setting spring, multiplexes saw attendance take a dip - and not into the pool - during the summer. The big titles mostly performed as expected, but there was a softness to the second-tier productions that permeated theaters. The inverse relationship between the movie business and the economy cannot be discounted. When things were at their worst outside of theaters, the popcorn was popping within. Now that the economy is beginning to recover, the box office is starting to slump.

Summer is, of course, the time of the blockbuster, and it has been thus since the mid-'70s. It wasn't until around 1982 that the term "blockbuster" was quantified with a box office number. (Before then, laymen didn't care much about how many tickets a movie sold. It was in the early '80s when newspapers started printing the weekend totals.) The figure was $100 million. Any movie to eclipse that magical marker instantly became known as a blockbuster. They were rare: 5 in 1982, 2 in 1983, 4 in 1984, 3 in 1985, 5 in 1986, 4 in 1987, and 6 in 1988. Of course, even by 1988, $100 million wasn't the same as it was in 1982. In fact, to remain constant, the blockbuster level should have been about $140 million, which would have knocked the "record" total of six in 1988 down to two.

Today, of course, while $100 million represents a successful run for most movies, it can actually be grim news for some of the highest-priced would-be spectacles. $100 million is no longer the blockbuster benchmark - last year alone, 29 movies attained that level and, thus far in 2009, there are 16 and counting. So, if it's not $100 million, what is it? The answer is easy enough to determine: just take $100 million and multiply it by 2.44 (the inflation adjustment factor according to Box Office Mojo) and, with a little rounding to arrive at a "nice" number, we get $250 million. That's a comfortable number. Using $250 million, there were 3 blockbusters in 2008, 6 in 2007, and 2 in 2006. Thus far, this year's total stands at 5, with an outside chance that one current release (Ice Age 3) could join the club, and with two later-year openers (The Princess and the Frog, Avatar) having shots.

Take a moment, if you will, to rewind your mindset to where it was about three months ago. For some, this will seem like yesterday and for others, it will seem like another century. The summer season was on the launch pad and there were two burning questions: How would piracy impact ticket sales for X-Men Origins: Wolverine and would Star Trek be able to achieve the Holy Grail of genre pictures and corral a wide audience. Although neither question can be answered with authority 90 days past due, we can make some reasonable approximations, and that's what I'm about to do. The passage of time, even so little of it, provides a degree of perspective.

Although Wolverine ultimately underperformed versus expectations, no one - not even Fox - is laying the blame on the pirated work print. The film's strong first weekend gross eliminated that as a likely factor. The underlying causes were a combination of fan dissatisfaction - few returned on multiple occasions to see the movie - and general apathy. Wolverine failed to generate much excitement beyond the X-Men base. The film ended up making nearly 50% of its domestic gross during its opening weekend. However, a strong showing overseas ensured that Fox would regard this as successful, and it by no means heralds an end to the X-Men franchise, although the direction in which it will proceed is anyone's guess.

Did Star Trek (gross: approx. $256K) expand the audience? Even applying inflation adjustments, this movie out-grossed its predecessors, eclipsing both Star Trek IV (adjusted gross: $213K) and Star Trek: The Motion Picture (adjusted gross: $235K). When considering tickets sold, however, there are two competing factors that must be factored in. In 1979, when The Motion Picture reached theaters, return viewership was at an all-time high. Home video was still a niche market and fandom was starved for new adventures. It was not uncommon for an "ordinary" fan to see the movie five, six, seven times, and there are reports of extreme fans buying more than 100 tickets over the film's four-month run. In 2009, no film achieves that kind of repeat business. On the other hand, the Star Trek base, which expanded (perhaps by as much as fourfold) during the '80s and '90s run of Star Trek: The Next Generation, is significantly larger than it was in 1979. Assuming that these two roughly cancel out one another (fewer repeat viewings vs. an overall larger number of fans), we're left with a slightly larger audience for Star Trek then for The Motion Picture. Overseas, Star Trek did not perform well, but that's par for the course. The series has never garnered much attention in non-English speaking countries (especially Asia). This does not appear to have changed. The verdict? While J.J. Abrams appears to have widened the audience slightly, there was no seismic change. His biggest contribution - and this should not be underestimated - is that he re-energized the base. Fans who had long ago turned away from Star Trek were back, making their economic impact felt. Star Trek became a blockbuster not because of some incremental increase in the audience of non-geeks, but because - for the first time in years - fans were excited about the prospect of a new big-screen adventure for Kirk, Spock, and McCoy.

As with any summer, this year had its surprises and disappointments. The biggest disaster was unquestionably Land of the Lost, which raises questions about whether Will Ferrell's shtick is wearing thin. Lately, Ferrell has fallen into a rut, and audiences seem to be tiring of it. Also disappointing was the performance of Terminator: Salvation, making it uncertain whether this franchise can succeed without Schwarzenegger. The future of the Terminator saga is in question. On the other hand, despite prognostications of a "significant fall-off," Pixar's Up was a rousing success, and will almost certainly end the year in the Top 5. And The Hangover blew away all the experts' predictions, soaring into blockbuster territory. It's not as big a surprise as some have made it out to be, though, since Warner Brothers always viewed this as one of their tent-pole summer movies (along with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) and their tracking numbers prior to its release were exceptionally strong. Still, $300 million for a raunchy, R-rated comedy is eye-opening. Expect to see many more of these next year. Cheap sex-soaked comedies are easy to copycat.

If the summer box office has been a disappointment overall, it's still rosier than the home video market. DVDs are moving slowly and Blu-Ray sale are sluggish, indicating that the "next wave" isn't breaking with the fury the industry had hoped for once the format war ended. Netflix reports rentals are up, which signals that an increasing number of consumers are renting (or streaming) rather than buying. I can understand this approach - it's what I'm doing. Since January 1, I have purchased only a handful of movies, and there are only a few on my immediate radar: Adventureland, Star Trek, (500) Days of Summer, The Hurt Locker, and In the Loop. Furthermore, there's no guarantee I'll buy these on Blu-Ray. The minimal increase in quality makes it difficult to justify the price jump. As long as Blu-Ray discs remain more expensive than standard DVDs, sales will lag. Added to that is a growing widespread consumer feeling that, at least from a visual standpoint, Blu-Ray isn't as good as advertised.

Admittedly, people may have unrealistic expectations when it comes to high-def, but the fact is that DVDs are so well mastered and the quality of the players is so good that it makes Blu-Ray unnecessary to all but the most devoted enthusiasts. When DVD first came out, I converted almost immediately and never looked back. The format was so superior to VHS and laserdisc that I re-bought all my favorite titles as they became available and mothballed my laserdisc player (I no longer own one) and VHS recorders (I still own one, but have lost the remote). It's not the same with Blu-Ray. I don't feel like I'm watching something degraded and out-of-date when I pop a DVD into the player. It's nice to have the high-def upgrade but not imperative. And, with only a few exceptions, I'm not re-buying anything. I purchased my first Blu-Ray player nearly two years ago and my collection has stalled around 60 titles. Two years following my DVD conversion, I had almost 400 movies. The trends evident in my purchasing patterns are indicative of those in the overall market.

Even the best prognosticator would be wary of guessing where things will go between now and New Year's Eve. The August slate looks abnormally weak, but the same thing could have been said about February through April, and look how that turned out. The roster (at least what has been announced thus far) for the 2009 Toronto Film Festival appears more robust than the one for the 2008 edition, but the quality of a film festival's offerings - even one as big as Toronto - means little to the overall box office. In short, we'll have to wait and see whether the economy and a general lack of enthusiasm has driven movies into a slump or whether the return of colder weather to the northern hemisphere will signal a revival in multiplex fortunes and DVD sales. Regardless, though, it's a little sad when the financial performance of movies sometimes provides fodder for more interesting discussion than the films themselves.