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Vacant Seats: What Hollywood can do about 2010’s awful attendance

2010 is only twenty days behind us and I’m still feeling the burn of bad films past. Last year was a terrible one for those with strong motion picture affinities given the lineup of movies offered a mixed bag of unfunny comedies, cringe-worthy kid flicks, and adventures that lacked excitement. Even the bright spots such as art films, animation, and all things Christopher Nolan couldn’t overshadow the overwhelming stench. It seems film fanatics across the country agree, and it shows in the depletion in movie theater attendance.

What the Numbers Tell Us

At first glance, 2010 seems to have been a profitable year in the movie business. According to Box Office Mojo, 2010 was the second highest-grossing year of all time, preceded by 2009 when Avatar captured our hearts and wallets. With $10.57 billion in ticket sales one could say Tinseltown made off pretty good. That would be incorrect. Actual attendance was 1.27 billion, the lowest attendance in 15 years.

It was 1995 that last saw such low numbers. To offer some context, 1995 is the year Batman Forever was the number one movie with $184 million in sales. Waterworld, Clueless, Mortal Combat, Outbreak, Legends of the Fall, and Species are some other titles you might remember from that year. Let it all sink in; 2010 was not a stellar year for the business. Don’t fall for the hype: price inflation is one intervening variable disguising the failure.

That $3.00 or more surcharge theater-goers pay for 3-D enjoyment accounted for $600 million of 2010’s final take home and $3.27 billion in sales. Those little glasses and the mess they normally create amounted to one third of the 2010 gross. And the trend isn’t dying out anytime soon, with titles like Drive Angry 3D to Piranha 3DD coming to a theater near you sometime this year. Point is, 3D surcharges gave 2010 a boost it would not have had sans the technology. The total gross is deceptive because it took far less people in the plush fold out seats to make the record $10 billion dollars.


Saving the Business- Rogue Opportunities

The rising price of admissions paired with the shrinking pockets of Americans places the bar of movie-goers’ expectations higher.  The option of viewing films in 3D has changed from a corny retro throwback to a boon for exhibitors and studios to the chagrin of movie patrons.  Soon, movie makers and theatres will be expected to enhance the film experience for audiences once again as people demand more bang for their buck. Besides filming movies in 3D rather than adding the effect afterward, Hollywood can kick it up a notch with a few of the following ideas.

IMAX is an old staple that simply has not gained the same recognition as 3D.  Mainly introduced to theatres in the 1970s, IMAX offers huge screens and high resolution.  Yet the feature is typically only seen by school kids on Earth Day or other such field trips.  Until the Miley Cyrus concert film Best of Both Worlds, debuting Super Bowl weekend in 2008, IMAX was largely overlooked for mainstream film.  However, filmmaker Christopher Nolan used the medium for The Dark Knight and Michael Bay inserted key scenes using IMAX technology in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

4-D technology is relegated to Disneyland, Sea World and Las Vegas casino Circus Circus.  However, the medium is an enticing offering for family films and horror movies.  Moving chairs, spraying water, and whipping strings could at thrills and frights to both average films and blockbusters.  However, this also has the potential to be a liability for theatre goers with physical ailments, disabilities, or small children who don’t properly fit seats.

A few years ago I recall rumors this medium would be introduced to theatres.  In essence, a patron can click a button from their seat, and the collective of the audience will determine the path of a film (just like the adventure books of my childhood).  This feature has not caught on, likely because of cost (and thought) barriers.  To pull this off studios would have to film ample alternative scenes and write intricate plots to maintain continuity.  However, this feature was added successfully to a DVD.  Final Destination 3 had the option on video, but not in theatres. 


Though not an exhaustive list, these are some of the fun ideas that may engage audiences and keep movie theaters afloat amidst the threat of higher quality home entertainment systems, and rivals such as Netflix, On Demand, and Red Box.  Or hey, there’s always putting out better movies.

The Last Option: Better Film Product

This is hit or miss depending on the year, but Hollywood executives need to better figure out what audiences like and appreciate. Lately, as in the past decade, superhero movies have been cash cows. Not all heroes are created equally, and fringe comic adaptations prove that. Kick-Ass and “Scott Pilgrim” never got a chance due to low turnouts. However, Spider-Man, Batman, X-Men, and the high caliber butt-kickers are major tentpoles the world around. It seems Tinseltown is on the right track in 2011 with The Green Lantern and Thor.

Or not. Early word from fanboys is vicious toward the two new heroes and their costumes. Thor was to kick off blockbuster season May 6, 2011 without competition. Since musings have spread across the internet, however, counterprogramming has appeared. But big animation and larger-than-life adventure is still an opportunity and saving grace. Nothing beats family films and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides and Kung Fu Panda 2, and Cars 2 are just the ticket parents will buy.

And then there is the experimenting with alien invasions on the horizon. Though Skyline tanked in 2010 there is better quality UFO’s in 2011. Films like Battle: Los Angeles, Super 8, Cowboys and Aliens, Paul, Source Code, Apollo 18 -and if we’re being liberal- Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, will introduce us to new life forms and fights to save humanity. Based on that lineup, aliens could prove a more promising trend than vampires.


I hope to see more people filling up seats due to high quality storylines and cutting edge effects rather than inflated box office draws due to post-production 3-D pricing. Movie studios have some catching up to do. We’re in a recession and money is tight. What used to be fun for the whole family has become highway robbery given the lack of originality in modern filmmaking. But all is not lost, new technology and the better use of existing mediums can enhance the film experience. Just get to it before every American has a 3D big screen television in their home and subscription to Netflix.


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