Box Office Blues: The Blockbusters That Weren't

The first few weeks of summer have been one disappointment after another for Hollywood. Why the blockbusters — and box office — are doing so poorly

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The cast of Sex and the City 2

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3. Where Are the Sequels of the Future?
Once upon a time, even the biggest hits were one-offs. Nobody made a Ben-Hur II or The Sound of More Music or Gone With the Wind: Tomorrow Is Today. Then, in the '70s, Hollywood invented two kinds of sequels: the organic (The Godfather Part II, the Star Wars trilogy) and the opportunistic (inessential follow-ups to Jaws, The Sting, The Exorcist, etc.). Sequels became the industry's answer to perpetuating a brand name. Today the problem is not that there are too many, but that there aren't enough new hits that warrant sequels. The joke is that Hollywood has become so sequel-dependent, it has forgotten how to make new hits.

It happens that we're late in the cycles of many franchises, which often hit the wall after three films. They get more expensive to make and usually show diminishing returns. Was there a compelling argument, beyond the need for greed, to make Ocean's Thirteen or Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs? Will Pirates of the Caribbean, rebooting after a four-year hiatus for summer 2011, rekindle the excitement of its first episode? Shrek Forever After proves that even a green ogre can be overexposed. Whereas the organic sequels — the Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter franchises — kept expanding their audiences by offering narrative twists and character growth instead of rote repetition.

4. All Movie Ideas Have Finally Been Used Up
Genres have shelf lives too. One hit spawns a glut of like-minded films, and eventually the format exhausts itself and the audience. Nearly a quarter-century after Porky's and its spawn, Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up revived the randy, guy-centric comedy. After a few years, the robust grosses dissipated, and Get Him to the Greek doesn't spark hopes for any further extension of the Apatow genre. Other genres, like rom-com spy movies (Killers), Arabian adventures (Prince of Persia) and possibly even the gore-fest horror film, may have reached their sell-by dates because audiences have seen it all so many times before. Richard Schickel, TIME's longest-serving film critic, once said about the challenge of reviewing Hollywood's summer product, "It's not that they're bad movies, it's that they're all the same bad movie." After frequent exposure to similar experiences, the mass audience may get the same sinking feeling.

5. Hollywood Fell in Love with Its Own Hype
Each week, industry insiders predict the weekend's grosses. And movies can make a lot of money but be deemed failures because they underperformed by not beating the early line of the experts, who can be as manic-depressive in their speculations as the Wall Street touts. On the Numbers, C.S. Strowbridge noted that May was a month with "not a single wide release beating expectations." That's the fault of the movies, yes, but also of overly optimistic expectations — by people like Strowbridge. He forecast that Marmaduke would earn $24 million last weekend; it made less than half that, $11.6 million. It's a bear market, and the savants keep seeing bulls. Look for an abrupt shift in the next few weeks to "Don't buy — sell!," and then some serious underestimation of hit movies. The expert view will be that they "overperformed."

6. The 3-D Cow Can Be Overmilked
Studio bosses saw 3-D as the best idea since sequels. Sequels allowed them to extend a popular franchise; 3-D let them charge premium prices. And since the surcharge was way more than the added cost of shooting in 3-D, they could mint money. Filmmakers only had to perform last-minute stereoptic transplants on their 2-D films, like Alice and Clash of the Titans, to give them the patina of an event and rake in untold extra loot. Except that Clash wasn't the smash it hoped to be, and Shrek Forever After, an actual 3-D picture, also "failed to meet expectations." It's likely that certain spectacular fantasy films — the ones by Cameron and Burton — will lure audiences to pay more for a unique experience. But as more movies play in 3-D and the format becomes the norm instead of an event, the glamour could wear off. And with it the grosses.

7. Ticket Prices Are Higher — Way Higher
They jumped 8% in the first three months of 2010, largely because of the 3-D surcharge for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland, but that almost didn't matter because attendance was up 10%. Then the ticket price went up another 8% in April. (The breakdown: 8.3% for 3-D, 10% for IMAX and about 4% for regular films.) "At one AMC theater in New York," the Associated Press reported in late March, "the price for a family of four to see a 3-D screening of DreamWorks Animation's How to Train your Dragon this Friday will be $63 before popcorn, soda or candy." Even going to plain old 2-D movies can cause sticker shock. Get Him to the Greek or Killers will cost you $13 at a Manhattan theater, should you choose to attend. And last week, the Los Angeles Times' Joe Flint reported that a ticket to the indie drama Solitary Man at Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas — on a Sunday afternoon and at the box office, not on Fandango — cost $16.

Talk about rotten timing: the latest price hike coincided with the release of a lot of movies America wasn't that keen to pay for. The truism holds true: If audiences want to see a movie, it doesn't matter how high the ticket price is; if they don't, it doesn't matter how low. Filmmakers now have to lure people back to theaters. The shock of the new could do it, or a sweet twist on an old genre. I don't know the cure, but I can diagnose the disease: Hollywood has taken its audience for granted. And the audience has said, When you've got something worth seeing, call us.

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