The movie year is ending with a bang -- ticket sales have topped $10 billion for the first time ever -- but there have been plenty of whimpers along the way. For all the good cheer surrounding the holidays (this coming weekend could be the biggest in movie history), much of the rest of 2009 has been far less jovial, with a carload of fired executives and an even bigger cargo of catastrophic flops nearly forgotten in the year-end rush toward the record books.
Hollywood might be thrilled with 2009's results at the multiplex, yet those strong theatrical returns -- increased ticket sales, rather than higher-priced admissions, have powered the $10-billion mark -- only mask for a moment any number of serious problems in other parts of the business. General Electric didn't unload NBC Universal simply because "Land of the Lost" and "The Jay Leno Show" tanked; it saw far more intractable signs (the collapse of DVD sales, pricey overhead and production costs) around the corner. Money and optimism were in such short supply that Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks studio labored for months to nail down financing.
And yet, despite (or, perhaps, because of) a ruinous economy, people have rushed to the movies, and they have done so in some unfamiliar and telling ways, upsetting conventional wisdom along the way.
Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment's "The Blind Side" has blitzed to success in the middle of the country. Trashed by critics, Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" is not only the year's highest-grossing release (at least for now, with "Avatar's" box-office future not yet told), but it also earned better exit poll numbers than the studio and Spyglass Entertainment's critically lauded "Star Trek."
Driven by great word of mouth, married to creative online marketing, Sony and QED International's "District 9" and Paramount's "Paranormal Activity" emerged as two of the year's most profitable releases. On the flip side, toxic buzz spreading faster than the Station fire decapitated countless films in record time: Paramount's "Imagine That," Warner Bros. and Media Rights Capital's "The Box," MGM and Sony's "The Pink Panther 2," Disney's "Surrogates" and a good chunk of Universal's slate ("Land of the Lost," "State of Play" and "Duplicity," among the bloodier victims).
If the studios have been left wondering what to do next, the audience is certainly offering some guidance.
With slightly more than a week to go in the year, seven of the year's top 10 films have either been sequels or remakes. But the year's most profitable releases (the highest-grossing being Disney and Pixar's "Up" and Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros.' "The Hangover") have been purely original. Meanwhile, several big-budget sequels (Warner Bros. and the Halcyon Co.'s "Terminator Salvation," Sony's "Angels & Demons") performed materially worse than their preceding films.
For an industry investing billions in future "pre-awareness" titles (upcoming movies include new "Meet the Parents" and "Chronicles of Narnia" movies, among numerous other sequels, TV show adaptations and films based on board games such as Battleship, Candy Land and Risk), the potential for disaster seems clear: Marketability (can you sell it?) no longer trumps playability (will audiences like it?).
For all the millions that the studios have thrown at television commercials, billboards and coming attractions previews, ticket buyers ultimately respond to movies they feel they've discovered by themselves, not ones forced down their throats.
The guerrilla sales jobs for "District 9" (remember the park benches urging people to report non-human activity?) and "Paranormal Activity" (the $15,000 thriller premiered at midnight in a handful of college towns) were certainly the premeditated products of studio marketing gurus, but the campaigns didn't feel that way.
At the same time, the more studios calculatingly invest fortunes in big stars because they are supposed to sell tickets (Russell Crowe, Eddie Murphy, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell), the more moviegoers go elsewhere. "State of Play," "Imagine That," "Duplicity" and "Land of the Lost" grossed less domestically combined than Liam Neeson's "Taken" did all by itself. And the once-forgotten Sandra Bullock has seen two movies ("The Blind Side," Disney's "The Proposal") gross well more than $150 million each -- both films that could have starred Roberts, had she not passed on them.
A new challenge
The most worrisome sign for theater owners isn't that popcorn prices are surging because farmers are re-purposing their cornfields for ethanol. Instead, it's that the studios (Sony with "This Is It," Paramount and Spyglass with "G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra") are launching their most spirited challenge to the decades-old release schedule, which postpones DVD and video-on-demand premieres until more than three months after a movie opens in theaters.
While exhibitors won the first skirmish, a pact between Comcast and Universal could mean much shorter windows, especially for smaller movies. Already, dozens of art films bypass theaters entirely and are first seen on video-on-demand, and the advent of 3-D television sets could accelerate the exhibition revolution.
Profit and loss
For all the four-star reviews and likely Oscar nominations, Summit Entertainment's "The Hurt Locker" has yet to gross $13 million. Apparition's "Bright Star" hasn't passed $4.5 million, and Sony Pictures Classics' "An Education" stands at $7.1 million. That's less altogether than the $27.7 million gross for Lionsgate and Twisted Picture's horror bomb "Saw VI."
If sophisticated moviegoers don't want to complain about the death of highbrow filmmaking (Miramax Films bit the dust in 2009) they had better stop whining and start buying tickets. Because if you don't, prepare yourself for "Candy Land 2: Revenge of Queen Frostine."