The 2010 Autopsy

December 26, 2010
A thought by James Berardinelli

The word "autopsy" conjures up unpleasant images, but its usage seems appropriate when gazing back through the mists at the cinematic year of 2010. No matter how one chooses to spin things, the results aren't pretty. I'm fortunate that Michael was born this year; his birth and early advancement have provided me with something other than the miserable state of the motion picture industry to occupy my attention.

Before looking at trends, thoughts, and subjective views of overall quality, let me make some comments about the business side of things because, when all is said and done, the studios are in the game to make money. In terms of pure dollars and cents, 2010 will come in nearly flat when compared to 2009. With less than a week to go in the year and the Christmas crop of movies deemed to be weak by most standards, it's difficult to see how 2010's bottom line will exceed 2009's by more than the smallest fraction of the total, and there's a real possibility it may miss altogether. While that might not sound too bad, consider that grosses have been artificially increased by 3-D and IMAX surcharges and the base ticket price has increased by about 50 cents (around 7%) over 2009 norms. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when December 31 rolls around, the number of tickets sold in 2010 will be between 6% and 9% fewer than those sold in 2009. That's a startling number, and equates to somewhere between 70 million and 100 million tickets lost. That's how many more seats were empty in 2010 as compared to 2009 (it equates to roughly 2 seats per theater per showing for every theater at every showing). If you think that doesn't have studio bosses and multiplex managers concerned, you'd be wrong. A generic 24-plex could have (on average) 240 fewer patrons roaming the place on any given day.

Some other (domestic) numbers... 2010 claimed four titles with grosses more than $300 million and seven to exceed the accepted "blockbuster" level of $250 million. 22 movies crossed the $100 million mark. The top earner, Toy Story 3, made $415 million; the second place film was about $80 million less. In 2009, Avatar led the pack of only three $300 million+ titles, but it made $750 million. Second-place Transformers 2 topped $400 million. Blockbuster status was reached by eight films and 32 achieved at least $100 million. By nearly every metric, 2009 showed more robust earnings than 2010. The only exception seems to be the number of $300 million+ films. However, if you adjust both the 2009 totals and the 2010 totals to remove the 3-D surcharge, 2009 had three titles whose grosses topped $300 million with two to move above the $400 million mark. 2010 had the same number but zero of those exceeded $400 million.

When looking for reasons for the 2010 box office downturn, some have attempted to scapegoat the economy, conveniently forgetting that things were worse in 2009 when multiplex business was booming. The obvious explanation is that theaters simply didn't offer fare to excite the appetites of potential customers. Field of Dreams correctly observed that "if you build it, they will come," and that's a truism for the movie business. 2010's crop of movies misjudged viewer tastes. The overreliance upon formulas may be taking its toll. Sequels, remakes, and animated fare are performing well, but perhaps not as well as in past years. Several potential "franchise" titles (The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, TRON: Legacy, Sex and the City 2) disappointed due to overinflated expectations. Sequels are fine, but the material has to be in demand. For example, a studio can't dust off a 28-year old title and expect a new installment to be a major success, especially when the first one wasn't a blockbuster to begin with. Outside of the immediate fanboy/cult circuit, how many people were clamoring for the next chapter of TRON?

One of the most telling signs of a general multiplex malaise in 2010 has been the theater parking lot. Often, when I attended a weekend prime time showing in 2009, I had trouble finding a parking space. The only time in 2010 when this happened was for the midnight showing of Twilight: Eclipse. In fact, on many Friday nights, the parking lot was half empty. The Twilight movie was one of the few 2010 films that generated significant pre-release excitement. That was another problem with the year: little hype and chatter. Arguably the biggest sequel of 2010, Iron Man 2, made plenty of money but generated surprisingly little passion. It was the same with many high profile titles. People saw them but at times the attendance was obligatory: It's Friday night, there's a new Big Movie out, let's go see it. Of the non-sequels, the only one to generate significant heat and discussion was Inception. Perhaps the root of this problem is that fanboys (who often lead the way) weren't too excited about the 2010 roster. If that's the case, I don't see thing getting better until the 2012 avalanche. Anticipation is a big part of the movie-going experience. Dilute it, as was the case in 2010, and everything feels a little flat and colorless.

3-D continues to be a great unknown. Hollywood is pushing it relentlessly but, at least in some cases, audiences are pushing back. There is growing evidence that the only area in which there is widespread acceptance of 3-D is the animated market. Given a choice between a live action film in 2-D and 3-D, viewers are overwhelmingly choosing the former. There are two major impediments. The first is the surcharge, which is increasingly being seen as usurious. The second is the glasses. May adults find them uncomfortable and many children won't keep them on for the entire running time. The technical problems associated with 3-D often go unnoticed by "average" movie-goers - price and comfort are their main issues. A lower surcharge (say $1) would make 3-D more appealing to multiplex goers, but I suspect it will only attain complete mainstream acceptance once the 3-D process can be accomplished without glasses. The home 3-D market has thus far been slow, but it's a new niche; it will take several years before a proper evaluation can be made of whether people are willing to wear the glasses at home to watch shows and movies in 3-D on their televisions.

Of course, the elephant in the room isn't box office results or how 3-D is seen, but overall quality. For me, the primary reason why 2010 was such a disappointment isn't hard to pinpoint: too much mediocrity. In all the years I have been reviewing (2010 was my 19th), this has been the worst. The deficit is the most apparent at the very top. This is only the second year in which I have not doled out at least one four-star rating. The other year, 2007, was similar. The good thing is that this year, as in 2007, there was no shortage of ***1/2 titles (22 in 2010; 23 in 2007), but the top rating proved elusive. In fact, my #1 movie for 2010 would have placed no better than #4 in 2009, #5 in 2008, and #3 in 2007.

The place where 2010 suffered was in the middle. In many ways, nothing is worse than mediocrity, not even true badness. While I wouldn't go so far as to say I'd rather watch a one-star film than a two-star one, it's more enjoyable to write a review of something awful than something ho-hum. The hardest movies to write about are the ** and **1/2 ones, because I have no strong feeling one way or another. They blend together. They don't stand out. And there were a lot of those in 2010. Mediocrity equates to a lack of inspiration. That was 2010. Still, it's not all gloom and doom. Of the roughly 160 theatrical films I reviewed in 2010, a little over half received a *** or better rating. Put in simple terms, that meant I had slightly better than a coin's flip chance of enjoying myself at a screening. The odds were on my side, even in a bad year. Quality in 2010 may not have been as prevalent as it has been in past years, but it was still there. It just required more perseverance to locate.

There's good news and bad news for 2011. With studios locked into a formula-driven mentality, I don't expect a paradigm shift unless the bottom drops out of the box office. As long as revenue increases or stays roughly the same, there's no reason to do more than tweak the way movies are being made. Before changes are instituted to the kinds of films that are made, it's likely there will be tighter clamps applied to budgets. Basic economics illustrates that, for the bottom line, net profits are more important than gross ones. On the other hand, if 2010 - the worst year for movies in a generation - could still produce 22 ***1/2 movies (nearly two per month on average), there's no reason to believe it will be any different in 2011. That's 22 compelling reasons to spend two hours in a movie theater. In this day and age, can we ask any more?