Lackluster Memorial Day box office: Economy or bad films to blame?
Big-name films including the Sex and the City sequel failed to draw the audiences expected on the traditional kick-off of the summer movie season.
Craig Blankenhorn/Warner Bros./AP
Hopes for a boffo summer box office have taken a serious hit after the worst Memorial Day weekend audience turnout at the cineplex since 1993.
According to Hollywood.com, only 23.4 million patrons ponied up for what is traditionally the big, blowout kickoff weekend for warm-weather moviegoing. The disappointing numbers have experts poring over the somber picture for hints about why such big-name films as â€śPrince of Persia: The Sands of Timeâ€ť with Jake Gyllenhaal and â€śSex and the City 2â€ť with its returning cast failed to woo fans â€“ and what it all means for the future.
The economy is still first and foremost, says the firm's box office analyst, Paul Dergarabedian. â€śPeople are pushing back a bit as ticket prices begin to top the $20 mark,â€ť he says. â€śFamilies are feeling the pinch as even kidâ€™s ticket prices are heading up to $14.â€ť
And then, of course, there are the films. â€śGood movies will bring people into the theater,â€ť says Dan Hudak, multimedia film critic and creator of Hudakonhollywood.com. The sequel to the HBO TV show cult hit was just plain bad, he says, and the video game-inspired â€śPrinceâ€ť did not rise above its origins.
â€śHollywood is just underwhelming moviegoers,â€ť he says, â€śand I donâ€™t see any light at the end of the tunnel,â€ť pointing to the four uninspiring films opening this weekend. They range from the family feature â€śMarmadukeâ€ť to an R-rated, raunchy Judd Apatow-produced comedy, â€śGet Him to the Greek.â€ť
As he runs down the summer roster, he says the Christopher Nolan thriller â€śInceptionâ€ť is the only bright spot he sees. â€śThereâ€™s just very little buzz about movies right now and thatâ€™s showing up in attendance,â€ť he adds.
The entertainment industry should take the downturn as a wakeup call, says independent filmmaker Michal Abney, who points to the surfeit of sequels and TV spinoffs such as the upcoming â€śA-Teamâ€ť as evidence of a creative bankruptcy.
â€śHollywood has been doing the same thing for 30 years and now itâ€™s falling apart,â€ť he says. Instead of repeating past mistakes, he says, it is actually better business for the industry to pay attention to what people really want â€“ stories about human connection and real meaning.
â€śLook at the most successful film of all time,â€ť he says, referring to the James Cameron blockbuster, â€śAvatar.â€ť â€śThat movie was a huge hit because it was about something, it touched people and made them think about the fact that we are all on the same planet and we are all connected.â€ť
African-American filmmaker and Villanova University professor Hezekiah Lewis says the failure of the tale about a Mideastern prince should also send a message to the traditional entertainment industry. Instead of casting big-name white actors such as Mr. Gyllenhaal to play characters of color, â€śthey should go for authenticity and use performers with more diverse backgrounds.â€ť
Reality, says Mr. Lewis, is what has peopleâ€™s attention at the moment. â€śEvents in the real world â€“ the oil spill in the Gulf and the war in Afghanistan â€“ theyâ€™re just too big to ignore. People want their stories to tackle real stories with real meaning, theyâ€™re tired of plastic creativity,â€ť he says. If audiences arenâ€™t buying what Hollywood is making, he adds, â€śmaybe itâ€™s time to try something new.â€ť
There's a certain irony to how Hollywood obsesses over box office numbers most of the year, but then largely ignores them come awards season, says Peter Lehman, Director of the Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture at Arizona State University, in an e-mail.
"From this perspective, this year was typical, if somewhat extreme, with the "Hurt Locker," which did little box-office business, winning the awards, and "Avatar," which broke all domestic and world box-office records, winning few awards," he says.
Why do we care about box office numbers, then, if they don't impact a film's worth? "Americans are obsessed with what can be numerically measured and reported," he says. But really, "there isn't necessarily a great message or a trend in the figures of one weekend â€“ just an overconcern with quantifying and comparing."