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'Batman' Can't Begin to Rescue Film Industry

Blame ticket prices, weak plots, even DVDs: Fewer people are going to the movies this year.

June 21, 2005|John Horn and Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writers

For four months, Hollywood has been waiting for a movie to reverse its grim box-office slump. "Batman Begins" looked like the perfect candidate. A once-beloved franchise that hadn't been in theaters for eight years, the film had been re-imagined by the hip English director Christopher Nolan and was propelled by an ardent fan base, a huge marketing push and numerous rave reviews.

But like so many other recent releases, the tale of the Caped Crusader failed to save the day, further cementing 2005 as the year of the missing moviegoer.

In an era when a pair of movie tickets can cost more than a DVD, and in a season when the films seem like sorry retreads of years past, consumers are leaving one of America's great pastimes.

Compared with last year, box-office receipts have been down every weekend since late February; the last time comparable business was off for such a long span was in 1985.

This summer's movie season has been especially brutal. North American theater attendance from early May to June 19 was off nearly 11% from a year ago, tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. estimated Monday. If the year's overall weak admission trend holds, it will mark the lowest number of moviegoers since 1996 and the third consecutive year of decline, a skid that hasn't been seen since 1962.

Even with the price of a ticket exceeding $10 in some big cities, box-office receipts have fallen almost 7% from a year ago, according to Nielsen EDI, which tracks box-office performance.

Although the inescapable culprit may be second-rate storytelling, the weaker-than-expected opening of "Batman Begins" suggests that other factors are contributing to the decline. The expensive flops include pedigreed films such as "Cinderella Man" and "Kingdom of Heaven," as well as what should have been action blockbusters: "XXX: State of the Union" and "Elektra."

Some people attribute the nose dive to the growing popularity of DVDs, which now can come out mere weeks after movies arrive in theaters. More worrisome, executives say, is the industry's penchant for flooding the market on opening weekend, often putting a would-be blockbuster in more than 4,000 theaters. Beyond the added expense of those wide releases, the strategy leaves little time for curiosity to build for good movies and accelerates bad buzz, which can now be passed with viral speed on the Internet.

"Now at midnight on Friday evening, you're dead or alive," said Lucy Fisher, a producer of the upcoming "Bewitched" and a 30-year veteran of the industry. "However long it took to make the movie, by Friday night, except for Academy[-Award-type] movies, your fate gets cast."

Just as home entertainment systems -- including plasma screens and surround sound -- have become increasingly lavish, the overall moviegoing experience has become a shell of its former self. Even as theaters offer stadium seats and martinis, moviegoers are being bombarded with countless advertisements and coming attractions.

"Going to a movie theater used to be a unique way of seeing a movie and carried with it a romantic notion -- it was a special forum you shared with a group of people," said Terry Press, the head of marketing for DreamWorks. Theater advertising is annoying and ruins the value of movie previews, which are a studio's most powerful marketing tool, Press said. "At least at my house I have the ability to fast-forward through the commercials," she said.

Said Richard Zanuck, a producer of the forthcoming "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory": "I don't like [commercials] at all. People come to see the movie. The movie experience is supposed to be that.... They've come to see the film and not to be sold something else."

In fact, 73% of adults prefer watching movies at home, according to an Associated Press-AOL poll released last week. A quarter of those polled said they had not been to a theater in the last year.

Despite bad news on the home front, the studios have seen some of their losses mitigated by international box-office receipts and exploding DVD sales, which have become increasingly important to the overall profit of a film.

But how well a film does in U.S. theaters typically sets the stage for its profitability. And its opening weekend grosses foreshadow its ultimate domestic take. In this equation, studio executives cynically say, quality has become increasingly irrelevant. Whether good or bad, a film can be expected to make three times its opening weekend grosses in the U.S.

If a movie doesn't do well in its first weekend, a studio will often pull the plug on its marketing resources, saving that money for its video release.

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