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NYT: Big Films, but a Year of Smaller Audiences
New York Times ^ | December 20, 2004 | SHARON WAXMAN

Posted on 12/21/2004 10:21:35 AM PST by OESY

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 19 - Are movies growing bigger as theater audiences are becoming smaller?

That's one conclusion to draw from the box-office results of 2004, as Hollywood pursued its penchant for big-budget event films - from Warner Brothers' "Troy" to 20th Century Fox's "I, Robot," to Sony Pictures' "Spider-Man 2" - but the number of moviegoers in the United States dropped for the second year in a row.

With nearly two weeks to go before the end of 2004, domestic box-office receipts appeared likely to top last year's total of $9.27 billion, nearing $9.4 billion, according to Exhibitor Relations, which tracks the figures.

But an increase can be attributed to a rise in ticket prices, up 3.85 percent to an average of $6.25, while attendance fell by 2.25 percent this year after dropping 3.8 percent in 2003.

That audience drop appeared especially troubling in a year in which Mel Gibson's controversial "The Passion of the Christ," distributed by Newmarket Films, brought many new moviegoers into the megaplexes and finished No. 3 at the domestic box office with $370.3 million in ticket sales, while Michael Moore's anti-Bush hit documentary "Fahrenheit 9/11," from Lions Gate Films, became a magnet for political activists and sold $119.2 million in tickets.

"If you took the half-billion dollars of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' and 'Passion' out of the marketplace, we'd be in a real dismal situation, and they barely got distribution," said Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations president, referring to behind-the-scenes struggles that ultimately landed both films with independent distributors.

As the audience shrank, budgets continued to spiral upward, with blockbuster movies commonly costing upward of $140 million to produce, followed by tens of millions of dollars in marketing expenses.

Several expensive studio sequels were among the year's top performers, including the top-ranked "Shrek 2," which had $441 million in domestic ticket sales and $886 million worldwide for DreamWorks; "Spider-Man 2," which placed second in the United States with nearly $374 million at the domestic box office and nearly $784 million worldwide for Sony; and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which ranks fourth with almost $250 million in domestic ticket sales and $790 million worldwide for Warner.

Blockbuster projects that did not find audiences included Warner's "Catwoman," starring Halle Berry; Walt Disney Company's "Hidalgo" and "The Alamo"; and Universal's "Chronicles of Riddick."

In the middle ground Warner's computer-animated "Polar Express" continues to play despite a disappointing debut, with about $124 million in domestic ticket sales, while Universal's vampire epic "Van Helsing" stopped short at $120 million and Disney's "King Arthur" took in just $52 million at the domestic box office.

Studio executives pointed out that expensive event films had strong international appeal and continued to find audiences in the thriving DVD marketplace.

"The U.S. theatrical market is a mature business, unlike the international marketplace, which is breaking records with box office and attendance," said Dan Fellman, president of theatrical distribution for Warner Brothers. "That's where the expansion is taking place,"

But others acknowledged that many of the most profitable movies this year were medium-budget comedies and horror films that cost relatively little, and nonetheless grabbed the audience. They included Universal's "Along Came Polly," a Ben Stiller comedy that cost about $42 million and took in $171 million at the box office around the world; "The Grudge," a Japanese-inspired horror film, which had an astounding $124 million in worldwide ticket sales after Sony bought it for $10 million; and Fox's "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story," another Ben Stiller comedy that cost $20 million and took in $166 million around the world.

This weekend "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," another big-budget film from DreamWorks and Paramount, opened strongly at $30.2 million.

Sony's comedy "Spanglish," directed by James L. Brooks, opened to unenthusiastic business, taking in $9 million on 2,400 screens, while Fox's "Flight of the Phoenix," starring Dennis Quaid, took in just $5.2 million on 2,600 screens. Miramax's sweeping drama "The Aviator," from the director Martin Scorsese, opened on 40 screens and took in $831,000.

"Meet the Fockers," a comedy from DreamWorks and Universal, is one major film left to open this year. It could break $100 million at the box office, according to market research by the National Research Group.

Some industry experts suggested that the trend toward high budgets for epic, effects-heavy films would come under new scrutiny as a result of this year's performance pattern.

"It's not that the grosses are getting smaller, it's that the budgets are getting bigger," said Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Miramax Films. "You cannot have that rise in production and marketing costs of 20 and 30 percent each year, even though attendance is down. Your gross is only going up 2 or 3 or 4 percent."

But executives at major studios, all heavily invested in making blockbusters, disputed this notion.

Jim Gianopulos, co-chairman of Fox, said that despite the success of smaller genre pictures, studios still needed to maintain the diversity on their slates, which includes so-called tentpole pictures, meaning movies that draw a broad audience. Fox has several coming up next year, including the animated "Robots," Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" and the last installment of the "Star Wars" saga.

"You can't only make one kind of movie," Mr. Gianopulos said. "The key is not the type of movie you make, but the manner you go about deciding what to make. Is it fresh? Is it original? Does it have a vision? Who is it for? And how many of those people are there?"

Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Disney's Buena Vista unit, agreed. "If all you try to hit are doubles, I don't believe you can hit a home run," he said.

Sony will end 2004 with the largest domestic market share, with an estimated $1.3 billion in ticket sales. Warner Brothers is expected to be second with an estimated $1.1 billion, followed by Disney - supported by the Pixar-produced hit, "The Incredibles" - which expects to end the year slightly behind Warner Brothers.

Buoyed by "Shrek 2" and "Shark Tale," DreamWorks took in $924 million despite its limited slate of pictures. Meanwhile Fox and Universal fell at the middle of the market-share pack, with Fox having a strong early part of the year and summer, but lacking films to hold the box office through the end of the year. Universal, meanwhile, stumbled through the summer, but made up ground with movies like "The Bourne Supremacy" and the anticipated hit "Meet the Fockers."

Paramount was dogged by a series of box-office flops and lagged far behind the other studios. It is expected to end the year at a domestic total over $550 million.

TOPICS: Business/Economy; Culture/Society; Extended News; News/Current Events; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: 2004review; buenavista; bush; dergarabedian; disney; exhibitorrelations; fahrenheit911; films; fox; gianopulos; gibson; harrypotter; hollywood; irobot; lionsgate; michaelmoore; miramax; movies; paramount; passionofchrist; shrek2; spiderman2; troy; viane; warnerbrothers; weinstein
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The reporter, Sharon Waxman, led the movement at the Times to blacklist Mel Gibson for "The Passion of the Christ."

1 posted on 12/21/2004 10:21:35 AM PST by OESY
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"The Passion" was the only movie I've seen in the past five years. I probably will not go to another movie for five more. I have no interest in the garbage they are promoting.

2 posted on 12/21/2004 10:24:32 AM PST by johniegrad
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The made-for-boobuss-toobus industry cut into their sales. Those movies go straight to DVD, even without ratings.

Besides, WHO CARES?! The older I get the more garbage I see produced. It MUST be me. Lol.

3 posted on 12/21/2004 10:25:18 AM PST by starfish923
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Hmmm, I saw..let's see...exactly 3 of those. Van Helsing, Spider-Man 2, and DodgeBall. I do want to see Princess Diaries 2 and National Treasure, though.

4 posted on 12/21/2004 10:26:12 AM PST by TheBigB (Smartass remarks $5.00...with extra pithiness $2.00 more!)
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To: johniegrad
Hey, now that I think about it, it is the only movie (The Passsion) I went to . Sherk 2 will be the only other one I want to see. Most of these actors are so anti-American anyway.
5 posted on 12/21/2004 10:28:22 AM PST by marmar (Faith is a beautiful thing.....)
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In all his long analysis, it never occurred to this clueless idiot the real reason why attendance is down - LEFTIST HOLLYWOOD HAS COMPLETELY ALIENATED ITS AUDIENCE!!!

6 posted on 12/21/2004 10:28:42 AM PST by aquila48
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Is it me, but were movies this year, with rare exception, dismally awful?

Those on the list that outgrossed their worth are Shrek 2, Harry Potter, The Day After Tomorrow, Shark Tale, I, Robot, Troy (Dreck) 50 First Dates (Terrible, terrible, terrible) Van Helsing (Possibly the worst action movie EVER) Fahrenheit 9/11, and The Grudge. Turdsmears on film.


7 posted on 12/21/2004 10:29:21 AM PST by APFel (Humanity has a poor track record of predicting its own future.)
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To: TheBigB

Saw three, Bourne Supremacy, The Passion and Polar Express.
There could be a clue in this.

Make better movies.

8 posted on 12/21/2004 10:30:00 AM PST by Patrick1
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To: johniegrad

20 years ago, my area had 6 movie movie house for a total of 37 screens. Today it has 2 movie houses for a total of 34 screens. Yet, in the last 20 years, the population has practically doubled along with the number of schools, grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, banks, gyms, soccer fields, etc. etc.

9 posted on 12/21/2004 10:30:41 AM PST by bobjam
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To: aquila48

That and most of the movies just stink. There are some good ones on that list and I've gone to them. Just got back from Blockbuster with my son today though. Couldn't even find much in the "New Releases" that I even wanted to rent, much less would have gone to see. I mean, how many movies can you made from old TV shows? There is no creative talent in Hollyweird for the most part.

10 posted on 12/21/2004 10:31:30 AM PST by TXBubba ( Democrats: If they don't abort you then they will tax you to death.)
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To: APFel
'Van Helsing' was one of the worst films I've ever see in a theater. And the director dedicated it to his late father! How can someone connect a parent who passed away with so frivolous.
11 posted on 12/21/2004 10:31:35 AM PST by Borges
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To: bobjam
Very astute observation. Yet that tee vee still treats the paid pretenders as royalty and we their subjects.
12 posted on 12/21/2004 10:33:22 AM PST by AD from SpringBay (We have the government we allow and deserve.)
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Are movies growing bigger as theater audiences are becoming smaller?

Maybe it is just Hollywood spending more money on crappy movies.

13 posted on 12/21/2004 10:33:38 AM PST by weshess (I will stop hunting when the animals agree to quit jumping in front of my gun to commit suicide)
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People forget that industries have life cycles. It is easy to assume that because film is a big and growing business today, it always will be. But if you take a long term look at things, industries tend to grow, plateau, shrink, and become niche, diappear or evolve into something fairly different. Music industry is on the way down, and film will follow.

14 posted on 12/21/2004 10:35:26 AM PST by Wayne07
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To: weshess

It would be interesting to compare the top grossing films of this year say to 1984 or 1964 or 1944. Just wondering what would come up?

15 posted on 12/21/2004 10:35:27 AM PST by Patrick1
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To: MrShoop

In the 1970s the American film industry was near bankrupt...and had one of its great periods as well.

16 posted on 12/21/2004 10:36:30 AM PST by Borges
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To: Patrick1

Highest grossing films of 1984:

1. Beverly Hills Cop (1984)
2. Ghost Busters (1984)
3. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
4. Gremlins (1984)
5. The Karate Kid (1984)
6. Police Academy (1984)
7. Footloose (1984)
8. Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984)
9. Romancing the Stone (1984)
10.Purple Rain (1984)

17 posted on 12/21/2004 10:38:47 AM PST by Borges
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The real issue this year is that we are a nation at war. We have learned about real heroes. About real men. They make the hollywood heroes pale by comparison. Brad Pitt vs Pat Tillman. No way. The Marlboro Marine vs George CLooney?
The success of the cartoon movies indicates a need for escapist entertainment, but the characters are not people with liberal political views.
18 posted on 12/21/2004 10:40:53 AM PST by ProudVet77 (Beer - It's not just for breakfast anymore.)
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To: Borges much for 1984. Though Romancing the Stone was good.

19 posted on 12/21/2004 10:42:28 AM PST by Patrick1
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To: aquila48
Yup, I used to go to movies all the time, these days I spend my money else where. If a really good movie comes out, like Sea Biscuit I'll wait on a DVD. The movie has got to be really good before I'll send Hollyweird any of my money.
20 posted on 12/21/2004 10:44:43 AM PST by jpsb
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