The sky may not be falling in Hollywood, but in 2011, movie box office sales sure did.
Despite grosses of $10 billion, revenue likely will decline by at least 3.5 percent from 2010, projected Paul Dergarabedian, an analyst for Hollywood.com. He expects the number of tickets sold to dip by 4.3 percent, making for the smallest number of American moviegoers since 1995.
Though summer box office returns were buoyed by the final Harry Potter film, The Help, The Hangover Part II, and Bridesmaids, 2011 was the worst of times, the worst in 16 years.
Dergarabedian remains optimistic - "I'm not yet Chicken Little," he said - but Len Klady, who tracks box office revenue for moviecitynews.com, does not. Klady said he thought Hollywood was witnessing "a seismic shift in moviegoing habits." He projected that at midnight on New Year's Eve, revenue for the year would be down by 5 percent, with ticket sales down by 8 percent.
"You could feel it change on Jan. 1, 2011," Klady said. First-quarter revenue dipped a whopping 21 percent from 2010.
What went wrong?
Dergarabedian said the "iTunes model of movie consumption, the notion of getting whatever you want whenever you want, is changing the business."
Moviegoers aren't necessarily getting their film fix at theaters. "There are so many other things for people to do," Klady said. (For example, though video-game sales are also declining, in 2010 sales were $18.5 billion, higher than the theatrical box office for films. That isn't an apples-to-apples comparison of video games vs. films, though, as movies also generate income from video on demand, streaming, and downloading.)
What went right?
Moviegoers went to the multiplex for franchises. Of the top 10 films at the box office in 2011 - among them Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1, and Fast Five - all but Thor and Captain America were sequels or reboots of popular franchises.
And yet, Klady pointed out, moviegoers didn't turn out in droves for other franchise titles, as the underperforming Scream 4, Happy Feet Two, and A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas attest.
What worries Klady most about the sagging box office is that attendance is dropping as the population is rising. "A per capita analysis of moviegoing would show us that there is a double-digit decline in ticket-buyers, not a single-digit decline," he said.
He said he had not yet seen hard data but cited anecdotal evidence that "more people are downloading movies because it's cheaper and easier to do," diverting movie-watchers from theater screens.
Dergarabedian was encouraged by the performance of Bridesmaids, from an original script by Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, which grossed $169 million and which ranked at No. 12 for 2011, just behind The Help, based on Kathryn Stockett's best-selling novel.
Melissa Silverstein, who writes the "Women and Hollywood" blog at indiewire.com, was buoyed by the box office performance of Breaking Dawn Part 1, the third-highest-grossing film of 2011, in part because it was the one top-10 box office film anchored by a female star and also because it made Melissa Rosenberg the most successful female screenwriter in the business. Silverstein is likewise happy that Kung Fu Panda 2, the second-highest-grossing animated film of the year (after Cars 2), was directed by a woman, Jennifer Yuh.
Analyzing box office data is like reading tea leaves. Every reader detects a different pattern.
Dergarabedian said he thought holiday movies might have underperformed because, given We Bought a Zoo, Hugo, The Muppets, and Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked, "there were too many PG-rated films chasing the same audience."
Yet isn't a glut of family-friendly movies common at holiday time, when travel and reunions take precedence over moviegoing?
Although generally an optimist, Dergarabedian said, "Hollywood is at a crucial moment. If The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit, and The Hunger Games can't turn it around in 2012, the industry is going to be in a major slump."