When the big-budget superhero movie “Green Lantern” opened in June to $53 million, executives at Warner Bros. were optimistic that, despite negative fanboy buzz, they had a hit on their hands.
Instead, bad word of mouth led the movie to rapidly fizzle to a total domestic box-office take of $116 million, barely more than double its opening weekend ticket sales.
That phenomenon — a solid start followed by a quick drop-off — has been the primary driver of a decade-long decline in movie theater attendance that continued in 2011. The box-office figure known in the industry as the “multiple” — the final box-office take compared to a movie’s opening weekend ticket sales — has dropped 25% since 2002.
That figure provides perhaps a clearer answer to Hollywood’s recent domestic box-office blues than the reasons suggested by studio executives, who blame poorly maintained theaters, new digital diversions like video games and Facebook, and films that simply aren’t good enough.
In fact, average opening weekend ticket sales have stayed fairly constant over the last decade, when adjusted for inflation. Avid moviegoers excited to see a new picture as soon as possible (think “Twihards” or “Harry Potter” fanatics) still flock to theaters as eagerly as ever in the first few days of release.
It’s the more casual audiences, the type of people who read reviews and wait to hear what their friends say, that are becoming increasingly difficult to lure to the multiplex.
“The primary culprit for declining box office is that people who are unsure at first if they want to see a movie are now more likely to wait to see it on DVD or video on demand,” said Vincent Bruzzeze, motion picture group president for research firm Ipsos MediaCT. “There’s no reason to believe that the problem is movie quality or distraction from other activities like video games.”
The total number of tickets sold in the U.S. and Canada declined 4% this year to 1.28 billion, marking the seventh annual drop in the last decade, according to Hollywood.com. Compared with the high reached in 2003, theater attendance has fallen a total of 20% and is at its lowest point since 1995.
Because of rising ticket prices, estimated total box-office receipts dropped a more modest 3.5% to $10.2 billion.
Moviegoers flocked to sequels in 2011, as follow-ups to fan favorite franchises like “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “The Hangover” took the top seven spots on the box-office chart.
But the family film genre, traditionally the most reliably successful in Hollywood, had a number of high-profile flops such as “Mars Needs Moms,” “Happy Feet Two” and “Arthur Christmas.”
Several low-budget, R-rated comedies, meanwhile, like “Bridesmaids,” “Bad Teacher” and “Horrible Bosses,” were surprise hits.
Regardless of the year’s hits and misses, the larger concern on studio lots may be that total box office per movie dropped 13% on average in 2011. When researchers at Ipsos asked moviegoers why they were hesitant to see movies after their debut weekends, they found a top reason was a belief that the film would be available on DVD or via video on demand within two months.
Although the window between theatrical release and home video debut has shrunk in the last few years, it still takes four months on average, indicating that the public believes studios are moving even faster than they really are.
Social media may only be accelerating the trend, as teenagers and college students are hyper-aware of what’s hot in pop culture and what’s out of date.
“Younger people who are image-conscious don’t want to talk about movies that are a week old,” said Ben Carlson, president of social media research firm Fizziology. “If you don’t see the movie at that first moment, then the desire to see it begins to fall away.”
That helps to explain the short box-office lives of flops like “Prom” and “Glee Live” aimed at teenage girls who are regularly online, Carlson said.
Older women, meanwhile, drove the long box-office runs of “Bridesmaids” and “The Help,” which were among the year’s few hits that didn’t start with a big opening weekend. The female ensemble comedy and civil rights drama both debuted with $26 million domestically and ended up with $169 million, a multiple of more than six.
“Given how fast word of mouth spreads, you have to make a movie that’s entertaining,” Paramount Pictures Vice President Rob Moore said. “You can’t cheat with a great [marketing] campaign that just gets a great opening.”
Positive word of mouth is hard to manufacture, though, and successes driven by buzz were few in 2011. There have been no low-budget specialty movies that have exploded in popularity like last year’s “The King’s Speech” and “Black Swan.”
If Hollywood really has a problem at the domestic box office, the 2012 release slate shows little evidence that studios are making changes to address it. Weekends are still packed with big-budget tent poles, among them properties new to the big screen like Walt Disney Studios’ “John Carter” and 20th Century Fox’s “Prometheus,” and sequels such as Sony Pictures’ “Men in Black 3" and Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises.”
Those films are primarily aimed at fast-growing international markets like China and Brazil, where studios are enjoying double-digit box-office growth as more foreign movie fans come to theaters on opening weekend and beyond.