Bad times at the box office: Is it competition, the economy, or bad films?

Box office revenues are down 20 percent for the first quarter of 2011. While it is fair to blame the bad economy and abundance of alternatives, some good movies could turn things around.

Laurie Sparham/The Weinstein Company/AP
Collin Firth (l.) and Geoffrey Rush are shown in a scene from the film 'The King's Speech.' With the first quarter US box office revenues down 20 percent over 2010, the odds are pretty good that instead of heading out to the multiplex, many Americans stayed home.

Been to a movie lately?

With the first quarter US box office down a whopping 20 percent over 2010, the odds are pretty good that instead of heading out to the multiplex, many Americans simply tossed in a DVD, flipped on Hulu, or logged into their Netflix subscription to stream a film instead.

And these are only a few of the many proliferating options that are cutting into industry profits this year. Mind you, revenues for the quarter still hit nearly $2.1 billion – versus just over $2.6 billion in 2010. But much like the car dealer in town, the movie business is built on steady return customers.

RELATED: Ten best movies of 2010

“It’s all about momentum,” says box office expert, Paul Dergarabedian. “When movie-going is a habit, then audiences see the trailers for the next movies, read the posters, and stay in the loop so it builds on itself.

“The worst thing that can happen,” he adds, “is that audiences simply lose the habit of going out to the movies, which makes it harder and harder for even the best movies to draw people in.”

In fairness, Mr. Dergarabedian points out, the first three months of last year were led by “Avatar,” the biggest box-office draw in history. “So we are in a pretty big shadow,” he says. Nonetheless, he adds, “the movie business is entirely product-driven, so if the profits are down, that means the movies aren’t doing their job.”

Amen to that, says Fordham University media professor Paul Levinson, who says that when he and his wife recently went to see “The Adjustment Bureau,” “there were exactly four of us in the entire theater, me and my wife and two others.”

Momentum is not on the movie theaters’ side, if history is any guide, he adds. Motion picture theaters have always been very sensitive to the development of new media, says Mr. Levinson, author of “New New Media,” adding that they took a big hit in the 1950s when Hollywood executives underestimated the impact of television.

“That was the beginning of the process that closed many theaters in small towns and conglomerated them in the multiplexes we see today,” he says, adding that the movie-going experience survived, but in a different form than in the 1930s and 40s. “They’re still a significant force but now are being hit by the same pressures that are affecting traditional TV-viewing and paper newspapers.” On new media, “people can watch on their own schedule and movies stream free of charge.”

The economy is stacking the deck against steady movie-going, points out Antoinette Kuritz, director of the La Jolla Writers Conference. “For us to spend money in a down economy, it has to be worth it,” she says via email. “We have to be getting something we absolutely need, or something that is special,” she adds, noting that wasting money is less and less an option.

Combine the factors that the theater experience is not what it once was, she says, with the now exorbitant cost of going to movies, “and we now realize what the people up there on the screen are taking home, and attendance goes down,” she says. “It is a terrible combination that keeps people out of the theaters for all but the most special movies,” she adds.

But even the movie-going experience itself is not what it used to be, says Dave White, film critic for “The big theater chains are staffed and run by people who don't care about the quality of the ticket-buyer's increasingly-unpleasant movie-going experience,” he says via email, adding that many theaters have older, deteriorating projection and sound, in surroundings that are in disrepair, and exercise little effort to curtail noisy patrons.

But in the end, he says, it is the movies that matter and sometimes, he points out with such recent movies as “Sucker Punch,” “there's just a run of movies that are garbage.”

Dergarabedian says the flip side of that adage is also true. He points to the upcoming summer slate of films, with such anticipated sequels as the final Harry Potter film and the next in the Disney franchise, “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Even though he says this is the worst downturn he's seen for the industry, “With great movies this could all turn around very quickly.”

RELATED: Ten best movies of 2010

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