Ashton Kutcher’s rose-colored 2012 novelty glasses may have helped gloss over New Year’s Eve’s poor draw at the box office, but this past weekend was in fact the worst overall box office haul since Nicolas Cage got all Bangkok Dangerous on us back in Sept. 2008. It is perhaps not that shocking that audiences aren’t keen on watching a bajillion movie stars spend five minutes of screen-time inexplicably celebrating New Year’s Eve three weeks early, or Jonah Hill spending 81 minutes cussing at and being cussed out by pre-teen kids in The Sitter. But how bad was this weekend’s take, really?
The first two weekends of December have always been rather tepid at the box office, as students cram for finals, football fans hunker down for key pre-playoff games, and young urbanites spend their weekend evenings at a holiday party or five. Last year, the second weekend of December witnessed the third Narnia movie – yes, there was a third Narnia movie – and the Ricky Gervais punchline The Tourist. The year before that, the only new release was Clint Eastwood’s Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus, which came in third. And in 2008, audiences watched Keanu Reeves stand still in The Day The Earth Stood Still.
The box office has been in the crapper for months now, with weekend after weekend often posting double-digit drops from 2010, so it was only a matter of time before things dipped this low. The reasons for this slump have been discussed at length: Tickets are too expensive; cineplexes are too obnoxious; other pop-culture options are too distracting; the movies themselves are too exasperating/dull/ear-splitting.
But there is a silver lining to be found in this weekend’s miserable figures: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Young Adult opened to some spectacular per-screen averages ($75K and $40K, respectively). The previous weekend, Shame opened to an impressive $35K per screen average, despite its NC-17 rating. The week earlier, The Artist opened to $51K per theater, despite being a black-and-white silent film, and A Dangerous Method did $41K per theater, despite featuring a clothed Michael Fassbender. Granted, these are tiny debuts, sometimes in as few as four theaters total in New York and Los Angeles. But in a marketplace that has been – to use the industry parlance – unnervingly “soft” for months now, it is worth pointing out there are movies that audiences actually want to see, because, not to put to fine a point on it, they actually look good. And that is always worth celebrating.