Are Gas Prices Driving the Box Office Boomlet?

One of the chapters in my book addresses the myth that fewer people are going to the movies. In fact, attendance has been relatively stable for the last few years, and with the exception of 2005, domestic grosses have increased steadily if incrementally for some time. This doesn’t mean that all sectors of film production are doing equally well, and in fact, the indie film market is in crisis mode, as Mark Gill and others have discussed. So far there are some conflicting numbers about 2008. John Horn of the LA Times sees a slight decrease in attendance in 2008 (paired with a narrow increase in total grosses), but he also points out that summer totals are actually slightly higher than last year.

Significantly, a number of people are citing high gas prices as a reason for the unexpectedly high box office totals this year. Anne Thompson sees higher gas prices as part of a “perfect storm” driving people back into theaters [pardon the unintentional pun]. But Paul Dergarabedian also cites high gas prices as a factor in the box office success of Get Smart last week in this LA Times article. I think there’s probably some truth to that speculation, especially given that families may be cutting back on vacations, although I’d imagine that in my case, gas prices have actually depressed my moviegoing habit. That and the fact that I’d have to drive an hour up to Raleigh to see anything that doesn’t have a fast-food tie-in.

Obviously I’m not convinced that gas prices are the primary factor here, but I’ve been intrigued to see that issue mentioned by a number of observers.

Update: While this Time article doesn’t directly make the correlation between gas prices and box office, it more or less predicts that box office would be higher than expected this summer, as does this MSNBC article from March. It’s worth noting, of course, that both publications belong to media conglomerates that also make movies. The Morning Call also has an article citing Dergarabedian on this connection.


  1. Chris Cagle Said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 7:30 am

    Don’t forget the boomlet of news stories about how oil/gas prices are raising the price of popcorn and are going to be driving theaters out of business!

  2. Chuck Said,

    June 28, 2008 @ 10:17 am

    Right, I forgot about that!

  3. Anca Stefan Said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

    worthy or not of noting, I feel compelled to point out that you’re deliberately lying to us here:
    “driving people back into theaters [pardon the unintentional pun]”
    As soon as you re-read the word combination and decided it could be seen as a pun, but then, more importanly, decided to leave it in and comment on it instead of erasing it, THEN it turned intentional :)).

    In additon, I have to agree with the thesis that movies have risen in appeal directly proportional to the gas situation. While gas impacts mostly everything else we do for fun (food in restaurants, weekend trips, mall prices) movies and books are about the least impacted by that climb.
    That was my two cents.

  4. Chuck Said,

    June 30, 2008 @ 9:35 pm

    Oops, I meant to say “unbelievably bad” pan, not unintentional. The gas price corollary is an interesting one. It’s not unusual for movies to do well during times of economic crisis, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more expensive forms of entertainment were starting to struggle.

  5. Indie Film Crisis Roundup » Big Screen Little Screen Said,

    July 2, 2008 @ 9:14 am

    […] I think they get a few things clearly wrong.  While travel costs are clearly up, that actually benefits theaters that provide a much cheaper form of entertainment than a long trip by car.  And while I agree with […]

  6. The Chutry Experiment » Movies are Over. Again. Said,

    September 1, 2008 @ 10:49 am

    […] Insdorf and featuring filmmakers Paul Schrader and Danny Boyle, among others, revisits the “indie crisis” that received so much attention this summer around the time that I was finishing a draft of […]

RSS feed for comments on this post