Box Office Blues

The summer slump for Hollywood studios continues, and historically one of the explanations has been that home theater systems have allowed people to stay at home rather than going out for a movie. Studios were still cashing in on DVD sales, but now, according to Marginal Revolution, DVD sales are also hitting a lull. In the past, I’ve refrained from seeing a larger box office trend, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to hold that position, as gross receipts have been below last year’s for nineteen out of the last twenty weeks. And the decline in DVD sales also has to be a major cause for concern, at least for the studios.

Some of the explanations for this decline make little sense. A Govindni Mutry editorial published in the LA Times asserts that the lost profits can be attributed to that classic monster, the Hollywood liberal. She blames the “box office blues” on blue-state screenwriters, actors, and directors, who make “constant gibes about Republicans, Christians, conservatives and the military.” She comments that conservatives are turned off by the snub of Mel Gibson’s Passion, adding that liberal writers “are out of ideas and have to resort to endless sequels and remakes” (which raises a question: wasn’t Mel’s idea essentially a “remake?”). I’ll agree that I’m sick of sequels and tired of remakes, but Murty’s political claims rely only on anecdotal evidence describing a few studio meetings, not necessarily how those films have been received by audiences. Essentially, Murty is making an argument about the perceived quality of Hollywood films, and I’m not sure that the quality of the blockbusters is entirely to blame (even old ideas can be recycled in interesting ways).

Daniel Gross, in a slightly more convincing New York Times article, compares Hollywood’s problems to Detroit’s, arguing that the Hollywood business model is obsolete. Both industries face increased competition (foreign car manufacturers or video games and the Internet), and Hollywood’s expensive production costs are not unlike the auto industry’s. Of course this is complicated by the fact that studios can benefit from a thriving game industry through video game tie-ins.

Tyler at Marginal Revolution adds a few other reasons for declining box office, including the increasing quality of high-profile television shows and better home theater systems, adding that declining DVD sales may be attributed to the fact that casual film fans no longer feel the need to add to their collections. Tyler’s argument might also be suported by the Netflix Effect. With Netflix, film fans no longer even have to go to the video store to check out movies, and because there are no late fees (Blockbuster’s pseudo-no late fees policy might have a similar effect), I’d imagine people feel less need to buy movies in the first place.

In general, though, I’m inclined to agree with Mick LaSalle at the San Francisco Gate that the current box office malaise doesn’t have a simple explanation, though I think he identifies several other important factors, specifically teh degree to whcih multiplexes now feel comfortable selling the attention of their captive audiences to advertisers before the movies (or even the previews) start. I’m not going to get into predictions or speculation here (after all, this is just a blog entry), but Wiley’s description of a 1970s-style Hollywod re-organization, in which studios experiment with new, possibly cheaper, forms of production and distribution, seems like a possibility.

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