The movies aint making what they used to

Watching box office records being broken these days is like watching the Olympics, if performance-enhancing drugs were permitted. With year after year of record breakers, it seems like the Hollywood culture machine — despite loud cries over increased piracy — is doing just fine. The problem is that the continued inflation of ticket prices masks the fact that attendance has been in a downward spiral since the advent of television.

Currently, the box office is in the spotlight due in large part to the debate over whether or not Avatar will beat Titanic in both worldwide and domestic grosses. While Avatar does seem posed to bring down Titanic on the world market, it still has a ways to go before it takes the top spot domestically. The thing is, all this may just be a bunch of noise if we consider that box office totals unadjusted for inflation might be the wrong stick to measure success with.

Looking at the top 10 grossing films in world markets, every film on the list but Titanic came out within the last 10 years. It’s a similar story in domestic markets where seven of the top 10 grossing films of all time have also come out since 2000. All of these films are considered block-busting mega-hits due to these numbers, and are quoted as such by media and advertisers. However, these numbers do not take into consideration the steroid-like effect of inflation.

This ‘roiding of the box office can be seen very clearly when we consider that average ticket prices in the U.S. in 1997, when Titanic came out, were a mere US$4.59, whereas today they are approximately US$7.35. Factor in the additional charge for 3D presentation, which has made up 78 per cent of Avatar’s box office tally, and we start to see a different picture.

While 3D has helped boost the box office, it has yet to truly boost attendance and bring more people into the theaters. What’s worse is that due the arrival of 3D televisions, including 3M’s announcement of a technology that doesn’t require those pesky glasses, Hollywood has limited time to bank on 3D before the experience becomes passé.

The sad fact is that when we adjust domestic box office receipts to take inflation into consideration, Avatar (as of this writing and including the additional cost of the 3D glasses) sits at number 52, Titanic at number six, and the number one top-grossing film of all time would be 1939’s Gone With the Wind. While the total grosses include a re-release, Gone With the Wind’s total adjusted tally is still an impressive US$1,485,028,000. Titanic sits US$541,685,700 short of Gone With the Wind, which is greater than what Avatar has made thus far domestically.

Don’t get me wrong, Avatar is doing very well, but it’s hardly Earth-shattering. Any source that speaks to the contrary has been affected by the Hollywood hype machine. Of course, none of this is Avatar’s fault; with television, video games and the Internet there is a lot more competition now than there was in 1939.

The problem for box office tallies and movie theaters is that people are less and less inclined to want to consume their entertainment at times dictated by movie houses. It’s becoming more and more clear that, for most people, watching a movie in a theater is like taking the bus; there are just too many strangers and too many inconveniences to make the experience worthwhile. That’s why, despite the additional costs, most people choose to drive their own car, and watch their entertainment at home. It’s just more pleasant. Adding elements like 3D will only slow the speed at which the population moves towards demanding entertainment where and when they want it.

As screens get bigger, mobile devices get more memory and 3D becomes widely available, Hollywood is going to run out of ways to give an audience an experience worth going out for. But of course this is not the end of movies, just the continuation of the slow move away from movie houses. If Hollywood isn’t ready for this inevitable end, then perhaps its time is dwindling as well.

Corey King has studied and made many movies, but even he enjoys his entertainment with loved ones at home and not with an obnoxious stranger on a cellphone.