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Cold summer for Hollywood: why movie attendance flopped

Hollywood had high hopes for a summer of blockbusters, but instead saw a decline in North American movie attendance. The Olympics and the Colorado movie theater shooting share some blame.

By Staff Writer / September 4, 2012

Isaac Pacheco is comforted after leaving a birthday card for his friend Alex Sullivan, who was killed in the Denver-area movie killings, at a memorial site for victims behind the theater where a gunman opened fire on moviegoers in Aurora, Colorado.

Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Los Angeles

This is the summer that Hollywood would like to remake: Movie-going in the US sank to its lowest level in two decades.

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Some 533 million moviegoers in North America bought tickets this summer, a number that was off by four percent from last year. It was also the worst since independent record-keeping of summer tickets sales began in 1993, when the number of tickets sold was some 23 million higher, according to Hollywood.com.

The problem is that summertime – those 18 weeks between May Day and Labor Day – accounts for some 40 percent of the industry’s profits, Paul Dergarabedian, box office expert for Hollywood.com, says. This year, however, movie-going had competition from tangible events that affected how many folks headed off their couches and into darkened theaters, he says.

“The Summer Olympics always make a dent in movie-going,” Mr. Dergarabedian says. And “there was the tragedy in Colorado, which no doubt kept an unknown amount of people away from the movies,” he says.

While it’s impossible to know for certain how much the July 20 shooting that killed 12 and wounded 58 at an Aurora, Colo., theater affected interest, the film where the shooting occurred, the Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” had been expected to do at least $30 million to $40 million more in opening weekend sales, says Sean Phillips, executive producer for Yahoo! Movies.

“People were nervous and stayed away,” he says.

The decline is all the more shocking because the summer kicked off with such expectations of good news, Dergarabedian says. The industry’s top franchise films were released over the summer months: “The Avengers,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” and “The Amazing Spider-Man,” the last a successful reboot of a franchise that was not even a decade old.

He points out that family films did well with 3D sequels in such popular titles as “Ice Age.” But, perhaps more important he says, movies with big stars such as Adam Sandler in “That’s My Boy,” and Tom Cruise in “Rock of Ages,” flopped.

Still, the global marketplace broke records this summer. “The Avengers,” the Disney/Marvel comic book juggernaut that kicked off the summer season back on May 4, has taken in a global gross of $1.5 billion (a figure that includes the domestic take of $620 million). Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight Rises,” was not far behind, taking in some $1 billion on the global stage.

“The worldwide market is more important than ever,” Mr. Phillips says, who adds that the expansion of megaplexes and more sophisticated exhibition spaces overseas has encouraged Hollywood to make films increasingly targeted at global audiences. As the imbalance between domestic and foreign box office continues, he says, watch for the big ticket films to reflect this marketing.

“We’ll see more international stars,” he says, with story lines and themes that appeal to audiences in many countries, not just the US.

The Colorado shooting and the Summer Olympics aside, Hollywood needs to take a closer look at the product it is turning out, says Bob Waliszewski, of the conservative group Focus on the Family.

Mr. Waliszewski, director of the group's Plugged In department, which monitors media, points to this past weekend’s “Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure,” a film that reportedly cost nearly $60 million to produce and market and took in less than a million, earning it the title of Hollywood’s biggest wide-market release flop, ever. 

“Now the public got it right,” he says. “It was just awful.”

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