Box office is up 6%, but the movie business is still in trouble
Hollywood is relieved. After three consecutive down years, some believed that movie box
office would move into perpetual decline. After all, network television has been
watching its ratings fall off for the last decade as it tries to compete in the
500-channel universe. Couldn't the same fate be in the cards for the movie business?
2006 ticket sales are up 6% over the first seven months of 2006. Most of the increase
is accounted for by higher ticket prices, but still, it's an improvement.
Unfortunately, it hides the underlying weakness in film industry. There is a complete
lack of creativity.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Buena Vista) is officially a cultural
phenomenon. It will exceed $400 million at the box office, and fans are anxiously
looking forward to the third film in the series next summer. Jack Sparrow has driven
the 2006 summer box office, and he'll be counted on to do the same in 2007. Hollywood
will also offer new installments of popular franchises like Harry Potter, Spider-Man,
Shrek, Fantastic Four, Rush Hour, Ocean's Eleven and Matt Damon's Bourne films. This
is a huge problem.
Increasingly, moviegoers are fed a steady diet of sequels, remakes and relatively
inexpensive animated pictures. Where are the film visionaries? Is there a single
creative maverick left in Hollywood? Where is our Louis B. Mayer? Who is the Darryl
Zanuck or Carl Laemmle of the new millennium? Is there a studio head around today
with the bravado and balls of a Robert Evans or Samuel Goldwyn?
The new rule in Hollywood is to play it safe. Companies like News Corp, Disney and
Time Warner care only about the bottom line. A film is not a work of art. It is a
commodity to be sold. That explains why, at the most recent Academy Awards, only one
of the five Best Picture nominees was from the major studios. To make matters worse
only one of the five Best Director nominees, one of the five Best Actor nominees and
two of the five Best Actress nominees were from major studio releases. The most talented
actors, writers and directors have taken their gifts to smaller projects.
In 1980, the Top 25 domestic box office performers included four sequels, one animated
film and two remakes. The Empire Strikes Back was the #1 film of that year, but
the Top 25 included 19 "original" films. For our purposes, "original" means
non-animated, non-sequel and non-remake. Other hits included 9 to 5, Stir Crazy,
Airplane!, Private Benjamin, Coal Miner's Daughter, The Blue Lagoon, Ordinary People,
Urban Cowboy, Dressed To Kill, Friday the 13th and Caddyshack. These were distinctive
and unique movies that have stood the test of time and served as important cultural landmarks.
Skip a decade to 1996, and the Top 5 grossing pictures were all "originals", with
Independence Day at #1 followed by Twister, Mission: Impossible (adapted from the
television series, but not a remake of another film), Jerry Maguire and Ransom.
2005 - Top 25 - Domestic Box Office
12 original films
2006 - Top 25 - Domestic Box Office
11 original films
(Ice Age: The Meltdown is an animated sequel)
Hollywood has become decidedly unoriginal. This year, the local multiplexes are
overloaded with animated films and the latest, Ant Bully (Warner Bros.) tanked
last weekend. Of the nine sequels that have been released, several didn't merit
another installment. Was anyone really waiting for Big Momma's House 2 or Fast & the
Furious: Tokyo Drift? And the three remakes, Superman Returns, The Pink Panther and
The Shaggy Dog, were really designed to create new franchises (and therefore more sequels).
The movie industry is not healthy. Which of this year's Top 25 performers will
be remembered fondly in years to come? In my estimation, only Pirates, The Devil
Wears Prada, The Inside Man and V for Vendetta feel fresh. When you're flipping
through the pay cable movie channels in ten years, will you stop on RV or Failure To
Launch? Don't let the industry flacks cow you into thinking the good times are back.
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