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Hollywood cash registers fail to ring at box office

BROOKS BARNES

NYT SYNDICATE

THE year 2011 saw ticket sales in North America running about $500 million behind last year – despite higher prices – prompting a round of soul searching by studios trying to determine what went wrong and how best to proceed. North American ticket revenue for 2011 is projected to be about $10.1 billion, according to Hollywood.com, which compiles box-office data.

That is only a 4.5 percent falloff from 2010. But studio executives are alarmed by the downturn nonetheless, in part because the real picture is worse than the raw revenue numbers suggest.

Revenue, for instance, has been propped up by a glut of 3-D films, which cost $3 to $5 more per ticket. Studios made 40 pictures in 3-D in the last 12 months, up from 24 last year, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, a movie database.

Theatres have also continued to increase prices for standard tickets; moviegoers now pay an average of $7.89 each, up 1 percent over last year.

Attendance for 2011 is expected to drop 5.3 percent, to 1.27 billion, continuing a slide. Attendance declined 6 percent in 2010.

Hopes that a group of major releases would supercharge the Christmas box office fizzled.

Paramount’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol was a solid number one, taking in $26.5 million in its second weekend for a total of about $60 million. But Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows was a softerthan- expected second, with $17.8 million in ticket sales, lifting its two-week total to $76.6 million. Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked continued to struggle in third place, taking in about $13 million for a twoweek total of $50.3 million. Three heavily promoted new entries had tepid results.

What has gone wrong? Plenty, say studio distribution executives, who point to competition for leisure dollars, particularly among financially pressed young people (the movie industry’s most coveted demographic); too many family movies; and the continued erosion of star power.

One more thing: “You have to go back and look at the content,” said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Brothers. “Good movies always rise to the occasion. Bad ones, not so much.” Young people, defined by studios as teenagers and people in their 20s, certainly helped power some of the biggest movies of 2011, including Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2, the year’s number one release with $381 million in domestic ticket sales. Transformers: Dark of the Moon was second with more than $352 million, and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 was third with more than $269 million.

But a spate of smaller movies aimed at younger audiences bombed, including Prom, Glee: The 3-D Concert Movie, Sucker Punch, Conan the Barbarian and Your Highness. The horror genre struggled as an entire category, with lemons like Fright Night, The Thing and Priest.

“As bad as the economy is for adults, it’s worse for teenagers,” said Phil Contrino, editor of BoxOffice.com, by way of an explanation. “Because they have less disposable income and because they are more plugged in to audience reaction on Facebook and Twitter, the teenage audience is becoming picky,” he added. “That’s a nightmare for studios that are used to pushing lowest-common-denominator films.” Fellman said he had seen evidence that younger consumers were choosing other leisure activities over movies.

“There may be a correlation to the recent strength of video game sales,” he said. “You look at a game like the new Call of Duty selling $400 million in its first 24 hours and say, ‘What? How is that even possible?”’ On the other hand, several movies aimed squarely at older audiences attracted stronger-than-expected revenue, The Help was the prime example. That period drama cost DreamWorks about $25 million to make and took in more than $169 million in North America. “We definitely benefited from coming out at the end of summer, when women are sick of going with their husbands and boyfriends to nothing but robot and superhero movies,” said Brunson Green, a producer of the film.

The R-rated Bridesmaids also clicked with older moviegoers, who perhaps responded, distribution executives said, to a premise that seemed fresh: women behaving as badly as the guys of The Hangover Part II, which was a smash with $255 million. Bridesmaids cost about $33 million and took in $169 million, causing a race in Hollywood to develop copycat films.

Too much of anything, however, can produce a hangover and studios started to feel one with family films, which have been among the most reliable moneymakers in recent years.

Some new entries delivered solid results, Rio, The Smurfs, but a number of them stumbled in North America. Those include Sony’s Arthur Christmas, Kung Fu Panda 2 and Mars Needs Moms, which was by some measures the biggest flop of 2011, costing at least $150 million and taking in about $21 million.

Even Pixar had trouble. The Disneyowned animation studio had a hit in Cars 2, with more than $191 million in domestic ticket sales, but that total was Pixar’s worst single result, after adjusting for inflation.

Star power, or a lack thereof, was again a n e g a t i v e factor at the box office in 2011. There were bright spots, of course: Tom Cruise appears to be regaining momentum with the latest Mission: Impossible film; Johnny Depp charmed audiences once more with The Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which took in $241 million for Disney (and exceeded $1 billion globally); Cameron Diaz earned her keep in Bad Teacher, which took in more than $100 million for Sony.

But it was wreckage for most marquee names: Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig disappointed in Cowboys & Aliens; Eddie Murphy and Ben Stiller landed with a thud in Tower Heist, Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks bombed in the independently financed Larry Crowne. New Year’s Eve, essentially a string of star cameos, has been essentially ignored.

More troubling, studio executives say, were failed efforts by some younger stars to become bigger box-office draws. Ryan Reynolds never took off as Green Lantern, and Jonah Hill, praised for a supporting role in Moneyball, flopped as the main attraction in The Sitter. Russell Brand missed in a remake of Arthur, as did Taylor Lautner in Abduction. Amanda Seyfried struggled in Red Riding Hood.

Two exceptions were Chris Hemsworth as Thor and Chris Evans as Captain America: The First Avenger. Both of those newcomers, helped by their superhero tights, found substantial audiences.

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