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Box office: Has summer moviegoing gone unbearably ADD?

Big movies like "X-Men: Days of Future Past" and "Godzilla" have seen their box office drop considerably

The spring and summer moviegoing season of recent years has become one of massive brand names, even more massive audiences and marketing campaigns that are most massive of all. Of that there is little dispute, as the past month alone has shown us, courtesy of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" (three-day opening weekend: $92 million), "Godzilla" ($93 million) and "X-Men: Days of Future Past" ($91 million). All of these movies are big brands that on their opening weekends delivered for their respective studios--capturing, on the chart of biggest openings of 2014, three of the top four slots to date.

What is new, or at least newly emergent, is something less encouraging. All three of these movies with big May openings had massive fall-offs the following week. Spidey saw its numbers drop 61% from its first weekend, "Godzilla" plummeted off the Golden Gate Bridge by a margin of 67%, and "X-Men" this weekend tumbled 64% from figures it posted during its Friday-Saturday-Sunday period last weekend.

The conventional wisdom on drops for most blockbuster movies has long been that too much above 50% is disappointing; start climbing over the 60% threshold and you're looking at some major cliff-diving. That day-over-day comparisons--say, Friday of the second weekend compared with the first--saw a free fall of more than 70% for both “X-Men” and “Godzilla” is downright eye-popping.

These are dispiriting numbers. They mean that for every 10 people who came out to see "Godzilla" on its opening weekend, they were replaced by barely three people the following weekend. A sold-out theater of 400 one Friday would barely have 100 people in it just seven days later. Even by the relaxed standards of movies--new TV shows, for instance, see second-week drops too, but considerably less given the blast of fresh content--these are pitifully small numbers.

You might wonder if this is common to the May-July summer tentpole season, a function of movies opening so big they can’t but fall huge the next week. Indeed, some Polyanna-ish types might even say this is a sign of studio marketers doing their jobs better, getting more people to the theater quickly so that there's not much of an audience left by the time the second weekend rolls around.

That's a nice theory, of course, but it isn't true. In recent years, there have been far bigger openings that have dropped less, and smaller openings that have dropped considerably less.

In 2013, “Iron Man 3,” which opened to a gargantuan $174 million, still managed to fall only 58% in its second weekend, Meanwhile, “Star Trek Into Darkness,” which opened to a more modest $70 million, dropped just 47%. (The movie last May that had a comparable drop to the cliff-divers this year—“Fast and Furious 6,” which fell 64%--in fact opened bigger than any of this year’s movies with $97 million.)

In May 2012,  “Avengers” dropped just 50% on its second weekend after a colossal $207 million opening, while, on the other end of spectrum, “Men in Black 3” had a similarly respectable hold, down just 47%, after a $55 million opening. At the very least these 60% to 70% drops should be happening very occasionally, not all the time.

And if this year’s drops are sizable compared with the past few years, they’re downright precipitous if you go a little further back. The first “Star Trek” actually opened bigger in 2009 than its sequel eventually would, with $75 million — yet fell only 43%.

Go back a decade and the 2014 numbers start to look seriously weird. The biggest May opener in 2004 was “Shrek 2,” which opened to a hefty $108 million — yet fell just 33% the following weekend.

Is this a function of this year's movies not being good enough, and not garnering the word of mouth, to bring a new crop of filmgoers in the following weekend? Maybe a little. But the fact that it’s happening so consistently suggests there’s a larger cultural force at work, a get-them-in-at-any-cost mentality that is coming home to roost not long after. It is a mind-set that acknowledges, and plays off, an attention-deficit-disorder culture.

Movies aren’t solely responsible for this, of course, though looking at these numbers one could be forgiven for thinking they’re a big part of it. (You might even say there’s a neat metaphor for box office taking on this ADD character, reflecting how we feel watching these movies in the first place.)

On an economic level this is all concerning enough. Customer retention is considered one of the key benchmarks of any business, and if you're not getting people to see a movie a week after it's out, you're not only losing valuable box-office dollars (indeed, the total numbers when all is said and done may be lower for many of these films than their predecessors—overall box office is up 2.6% compared with last year yet down a  greater number, 3.6%, compared with 2012) but you're also losing a general capacity for relevance and mindshare. It's hard enough for studios to get people to remember some of these movies when a sequel hits two years later; if you can't get anyone to think of them after seven days, you're really in trouble.

But there's a more disturbing aspect here—the idea that there just isn’t much that's enduring about these movies. I don't mean that in the Citizen Kane, we-won't-be-hailing-these-as-classics-75-years-from-now sense. I mean it in a far more simple, literal way. Moviegoing culture is now so amnesiac most people don't think about new films a week after they're out. Your average kindergarten class has a longer attention span.

All of this is, in many ways, the logical consequence of a one-and-done culture. It’s a troubling culture, one that (very much in contrast to television) doesn't make for the kind of ongoing water-cooler buzz that makes screen entertainment fun in the first place. A few years ago you had movies that at least hung around for a few weeks, allowing us to catch up and not feel like we were picking at stale bread when we did.

In fact, it wasn’t even that long ago — just 1998 — when you still had movies like “There’s Something About Mary," which far from drops actually saw week-over-week increases. And in their seventh and eight weeks of release, no less. It’s hard to imagine anything remotely close to that happening these days. If you show up to the office coffeemaker Monday morning ready to talk about "X-Men," beware: The colleagues you run into probably have already moved on.

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