Box Office Blahs: Blame It on (Fill in the Blank)

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 30, 2005

LOS ANGELES -- Hollywood ticket sales took a little swan dive in 2005. Why? The consensus hypothesis appears to be that the movies were -- brace yourselves -- not good.

The industry and its observers are also variously blaming DVDs, video games, iPods, cellular phones, HBO, crying babies, $10 tickets, Chinese pirates, big screen plasma TVs, an aging demographic, liberal bias, video-on-demand, annoying pre-feature commercials and the Bush administration's energy policy.

The Great Box Office Slump has been covered by the entertainment press with a kind of giddy obsession ever since the summer proved blockbuster-deficient. Each week, the prognosticators sought deeper meaning in the weekend tallies for undercooked turkeys such as "Stealth" and "The Legend of Zorro." There was hope in the Hollywood press that "King Kong" might "save the day," but alas, the big ape has so far "disappointed," if it is possible for a $66 million opening five-day gross to disappoint (which it is, since Peter Jackson and Universal spent $220 million making the monkey movie).

The year isn't quite over, but Hollywood will likely end 2005 having sold about 1.4 billion tickets in the United States, which is a 6 percent decrease from last year. Revenue at the box office is expected to reach about $9 billion, trailing last year by 4 to 5 percent (the dip is slightly less than it would have been otherwise because of rising ticket prices).

This would be no big deal, except it appears to be a trend -- this marks the third consecutive year for declining attendance. And so the billion-dollar question: Does this represent the beginning of a fundamental shift in the moviegoing habits or was it just another off year in cyclical show business?

Not only are the studio suits and the pundits not sure what is behind the box office drop, there is disagreement over its significance.

"It's not a little off. Six percent is a big number," says Brandon Gray, founder of Box Office Mojo, an online movie publication and box office tracking service. "And they've got a big problem." In the press, some Wall Street analysts are using terms like "alarm" and "doom."

Not so, says Tom Rothman, the cheery chairman of 20th Century Fox, which had a record-breaking year. Rothman describes the current clamor as "the great over-hyped, over-exposed, over-reported box office decline." Rothman believes there is no fundamental revolution occurring in the movie theater business and that the year's totals were lower simply because a relative handful of high-profile potential blockbusters did not perform to expectations.

Rothman insists that history is on his side. "They said sound was going to kill the movies, that TV would, that home video would, that cable would, that pay-per-view would. Every time -- the hand-wringing! The woe-is-me! And instead what happened was, the pie gets bigger."

John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, a trade organization representing 37,500 screens, also argues there is no reason to panic. "It was a bit of a down year for theatergoing," he says. "There's been bigger down years."

True, there was a 9 percent fall in ticket sales in 1980, a 12 percent plunge in 1985 and a 6 percent drop in 1990.

"We're having another fabulous year," says Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. Pictures, whose studio business was up 15 percent. "A lot of people are crying wolf early." Actually what happened was that Fox and Warner Bros. had a great year, and "a couple of guys had a tough year," Fellman says.

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