Do you want the good news first or the bad news? The good news is that the summer of 2012 broke all the box office records that make studio executives feel their sap is on the rise. The Hunger Games gave them the “strongest opening weekend total for a spring release”, while Joss Whedon’s The Avengers smashed Harry Potter’s record to become the biggest box office opening of all time.” Seth McFarlane’s Ted enjoyed “the best opening ever — m — by an R-rated original comedy”, while The Dark Knight Rises, undented by the Aurora murders, provided not only “third- highest domestic bow ever, and the best opening for a 2D film” but “the biggest opening day of the year in France, where it grossed million including previews.” Vive la difference! Our studio executive can head out of his Malibu condo in the morning with a smile to match the gleam on his Porsche.
If any of these records sound to you a little like Most Notes Played by a Left-Handed Tuba-Player While Unicycling Down Fifth Avenue, then you are not alone. Keeping track of “the numbers” is one of Hollywood’s darker arts. The number of films advertising themselves as “the No 1 film in America” this year equals exactly 33, almost exactly the number of weeks there have been in the year — a No 1 for everyone! — while the definition of “opening weekend” has crept back to include Thursday, and even Wednesday night midnight screenings, thus swelling the weekend tally further. Some studios go to even more necromantic lengths, as Paramount did in 1994 when it discovered an extra in some “missing theatres” to edge out The Lion King as box office champ, only for those missing theatres to turn up on “Melrose and Glower,” the address of the Paramount studio lot.
Most importantly, none of those broken records take any account of inflation. The news media’s fuss over them is roughly equivalent to someone saying: “Wow! The price of milk just went up! What a time to be a dairy farmer! Those guys must be raking it in!” Well, yes, but the price of farmland has gone up, too. And hay. And cow insemination. Hollywood prefers to ignore inflation the same way stars like to ignore the effects of aging, because it presents them with a list of all-time box office hits as fresh as newly-mown grass. Here’s how it looks:
1. Avatar (Fox)
2. Titanic (Paramount)
3. Marvel’s The Avengers (Disney)
4. The Dark Knight (Warner Bros)
5. Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (Fox)
6. Star Wars (Fox)
7. Shrek 2 (DreamWorks)
8. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal)
9. Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (Disney)
10.The Lion King (Disney)
Adjust those figures for inflation, however, and it’s a very different picture.
1. Gone with the Wind (MGM)
2. Star Wars (Fox)
3. The Sound of Music (Fox)
4. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial (Universal)
5. Titanic (Paramount)
6. The Ten Commandments (Paramount)
7. Jaws (Universal)
8. Doctor Zhivago (MGM)
9. The Exorcist (Warner Bros)
10. Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (Disney)
Where is The Avengers? Way down at No 27, having just edged out Thunderball, but unable to quite close the distance on Grease. Here, then, is the bad news: for all these broken records, most of the gains of the past decade have come from higher ticket prices — in particular those jacked up by 3D — not more people seeing movies. Last year, a report by Goldman Sachs analysts Drew Borst and Fred Krom estimated that 1.28bn people headed to the multiplex in 2011 — a 25-year-low almost matching that of 1995, when Hollywood wowed us with such box-office kryptonite as Waterworld, Batman Forever and Showgirls.
The reasons are the same ones that have been draining cinema audiences since the 1950s: improved home entertainment, better gadgetry and an ever-shrinking theatrical-release window. On average, movie theaters only use about 15% of their total capacity these days, while younger audiences have plummeted 40% since 2002, prompting some to comment that “the golden age of the silver screen may be coming to a close.”
Maybe. The film industry has been “dying” for as long as it has drawn breath. On the plus side, big-screen provider Imax has doubled their screen numbers since 2009 and expect to do the same again by 2015 — so expect the summer blockbusters to bust up even more of the block. And what is quaintly known as the “specialty box office” — films that do not feature men with superpowers wearing spandex, aka “what used to be called the American film industry” — has been going great guns this year. If you want to talk about box office records, how about these: over Memorial Day weekend, Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom grossed in just four theatres — the highest ever for a non-animated film. And in June, Beasts Of The Southern Wild, a magic-realist first-time feature set in the Louisiana Bayou with no stars took in a “ferocious” in four theaters, according to Deadline Hollywood, whose tracking of specialty box-office is one of the more reliable guides to the awards season, now almost upon us.
So in the months to come expect some love for Moonrise Kingdom and Beasts of the Southern Wild; also The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — “The Avengers for grown ups” — which passed the m back in May. Although for sheer profitability no-one can touch the year’s biggest success story, a film made for just m which took m in its first three days, en route to a tally of m, making it the most profitable movie of the year so far. Step forward, Magic Mike, Steven Soderbergh’s film based on Channing Tatum’s time as a male stripper. Traditional thinking suggests the Academy won’t go near a film featuring Matthew McConaughey gyrating his leather-clad hips over the laps of screaming Floridians like a Mr Whippee dispenser. “The laauw says you can look but you cannot tuurch,” he says in his inimitable Texan drawl. But then he adds: “I see a lotta laaauw-breakers out there.”
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