Lackluster Memorial Day box office: Economy or bad films to blame?

Big-name films including the Sex and the City sequel failed to draw the audiences expected on the traditional kick-off of the summer movie season.

Craig Blankenhorn/Warner Bros./AP
Sex and the City 2 brought in disappointing results, grossing less in five days than the first film did in three. What a disappointing Memorial Day weekend means for the summer movie season

Hopes for a boffo summer box office have taken a serious hit after the worst Memorial Day weekend audience turnout at the cineplex since 1993.

According to, only 23.4 million patrons ponied up for what is traditionally the big, blowout kickoff weekend for warm-weather moviegoing. The disappointing numbers have experts poring over the somber picture for hints about why such big-name films as “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” with Jake Gyllenhaal and “Sex and the City 2” with its returning cast failed to woo fans – and what it all means for the future.

The economy is still first and foremost, says the firm's box office analyst, Paul Dergarabedian. “People are pushing back a bit as ticket prices begin to top the $20 mark,” he says. “Families are feeling the pinch as even kid’s ticket prices are heading up to $14.”

And then, of course, there are the films. “Good movies will bring people into the theater,” says Dan Hudak, multimedia film critic and creator of The sequel to the HBO TV show cult hit was just plain bad, he says, and the video game-inspired “Prince” did not rise above its origins.

“Hollywood is just underwhelming moviegoers,” he says, “and I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel,” pointing to the four uninspiring films opening this weekend. They range from the family feature “Marmaduke” to an R-rated, raunchy Judd Apatow-produced comedy, “Get Him to the Greek.”

As he runs down the summer roster, he says the Christopher Nolan thriller “Inception” is the only bright spot he sees. “There’s just very little buzz about movies right now and that’s showing up in attendance,” he adds.

The entertainment industry should take the downturn as a wakeup call, says independent filmmaker Michal Abney, who points to the surfeit of sequels and TV spinoffs such as the upcoming “A-Team” as evidence of a creative bankruptcy.

“Hollywood has been doing the same thing for 30 years and now it’s falling apart,” he says. Instead of repeating past mistakes, he says, it is actually better business for the industry to pay attention to what people really want – stories about human connection and real meaning.

“Look at the most successful film of all time,” he says, referring to the James Cameron blockbuster, “Avatar.” “That movie was a huge hit because it was about something, it touched people and made them think about the fact that we are all on the same planet and we are all connected.”

African-American filmmaker and Villanova University professor Hezekiah Lewis says the failure of the tale about a Mideastern prince should also send a message to the traditional entertainment industry. Instead of casting big-name white actors such as Mr. Gyllenhaal to play characters of color, “they should go for authenticity and use performers with more diverse backgrounds.”

Reality, says Mr. Lewis, is what has people’s attention at the moment. “Events in the real world – the oil spill in the Gulf and the war in Afghanistan – they’re just too big to ignore. People want their stories to tackle real stories with real meaning, they’re tired of plastic creativity,” he says. If audiences aren’t buying what Hollywood is making, he adds, “maybe it’s time to try something new.”

There's a certain irony to how Hollywood obsesses over box office numbers most of the year, but then largely ignores them come awards season, says Peter Lehman, Director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, in an e-mail.

"From this perspective, this year was typical, if somewhat extreme, with the "Hurt Locker," which did little box-office business, winning the awards, and "Avatar," which broke all domestic and world box-office records, winning few awards," he says.

Why do we care about box office numbers, then, if they don't impact a film's worth? "Americans are obsessed with what can be numerically measured and reported," he says. But really, "there isn't necessarily a great message or a trend in the figures of one weekend – just an overconcern with quantifying and comparing."


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