Image Credit: Jaimie Trueblood; Chuck HodesWith this weekend’s solid-but-unspectacular opening for The Green Hornet and the disappointing debut of The Dilemma, Hollywood is marking an unhappy milestone: Box office revenues have now been down from the previous year’s tally for 10 consecutive weeks. After a bruising holiday season littered with high-profile misfires like The Tourist, How Do You Know, and Gulliver’s Travels, the major studios are hopeful that 2011 will bring a reversal of last year’s worrying 5 percent decline in overall movie attendance. 2011 is not off to the most encouraging start. Though final numbers aren’t in yet, this weekend’s total box office haul looks like it will come in 25 percent below last year’s. Yes, last year at this time audiences were still flocking to the 3-D hit Avatar. Still, 10 straight down weeks stings—and not in a good Green Hornet way.
What’s going on here? It’s hard to argue that studio executives have been making foolhardy gambles. Granted, casting Seth Rogen as a superhero whose heyday was in the golden age of radio might have been a questionable call. But who wouldn’t have greenlit a thriller costarring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie? Or a romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, and Paul Rudd, directed by James L. Brooks? Or a Ron Howard comedy pairing Vince Vaughn and Kevin James? Those are the sort of down-the-middle pitches studio execs crave precisely because they’re supposed to be safe, but in retrospect they proved to be unwise bets.
Yet, while a number of would-be blockbusters have underperformed and overall revenues have been down, this hasn’t been a completely dismal stretch for movie fans. Smaller, ostensibly less commercial films like True Grit, Black Swan, The King’s Speech, 127 Hours, and The Fighter have drawn not only critical love and awards-season buzz but far larger crowds than anyone could reasonably have expected. Does this mean that budget-conscious audiences are starting to reject stale, been-there-done-that formulas and demanding a greater level of originality and artistic ambition if they’re going to fork over their hard-earned dollars for a movie ticket? Will major studios—which, lest we forget, brought out daring zeitgeist-definers like Inception and The Social Network last year (and to give credit where it’s due, True Grit and The Fighter are both Paramount films)—shift their business model away from bloated, overpriced sequels and tired remakes toward smaller-scale, edgier fare?
It may be a little early to herald the start of a new 1970s-style cinematic revolution in Hollywood; let’s wait and see how some of this year’s expected juggernauts, like the latest installments in the Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises, fare before we get carried away. Still, when an offbeat Western directed by the Coen brothers is running just slightly behind Little Fockers at the domestic box office—and a gonzo psychological thriller set in the world of ballet has outgrossed a big, shiny Depp-Jolie movie and will soon pass the mark set by Julia Roberts’ Eat Pray Love—it’s safe to say that something is going on.
How long will Hollywood’s ongoing box office slump last? Who knows. The bigger and more important question is this: Are movies really, as many fear, losing their cultural mojo in an ever-larger sea of competing entertainment options? Or are they actually in the awkward, sometimes painful, but ultimately exciting process of getting that mojo back? Stay tuned. It’s going to be an interesting year.