This Year in Box Office History
We only have one more day on the calendar for 2015, which means there’s still time for Star Wars to make another hundred million dollars. In all seriousness, this year in film has been a roller-coaster, where record lows and record highs have been achieved, often in the same month. The majority of the rewards were reaped by two studios, Universal and Disney (who combined for just over 40% of the complete take for the year!) but even these two giants had a pair of losses that ran the table in reverse. Let’s try to get a little perspective on this.
Looking at pure earnings, 2015 is a paper tiger. The highest ever box office take in history, un-adjusted, was set this cycle at 11 billion dollars for all films released this year. That sounds amazing, but a little history lesson shows that cumulative earnings have increased nearly uniformly over the last thirty years. It’s a rarity when a year DOESN’T out-perform its predecessor, with only 8 years managing to lose ground since 1980. The overall trend has been a steady rise of a billion dollars every five years. By that metric, we’re actually lagging. The box office made 10.5 billion in 2010, we should be seeing at least 11.5 this year to be on the low side of the observed growth. If you subtract ANY of the top three grossing films this year, we actually under-perform 2010!
Why is this? In a nutshell, it’s because ticket sales are actually going down. We sold 19 million fewer tickets this year than 2010, and are way down from the high water mark of 2002 by over 200 million tickets! Higher prices and premium features such as 3D and IMAX are propping up flagging sales, which paints a picture of a robust box office, when in actuality we are still seeing some contraction in the marketplace.
Heavy Up Top
We certainly have had our run-away successes this year. Star Wars and Jurassic World have smashed nearly every earnings marker measured (and in case you are wondering, Star Wars would have to throw up all over itself just in front of the finish line to not pass Avatar as the all time money champ.) The top 5 earning films this year ALL out-earned last year’s #1 film, American Sniper. The big tent-pole films are crushing the competition as of late…until you take into account ticket price hikes. In raw dollars, 3 of the top 10 earning films of all time are from this year alone. In adjusted dollars, no film from THIS DECADE cracks even the top 20. That’s how crazy ticket prices have become, and how fast inflation eats gains. So raise the damn minimum wage already!
The flip side is that we’ve seen a tremendous amount of flops this year as well. Jem and the Holograms comes easily to mind, which earned so poorly that it was yanked from theaters after only two weeks! Far from a fluke, this film was more the norm. It’s hard to apples to apples money-pits, because the math is arcane and you have to decide if you count such things as advertising or adjusted ticket prices, and you have to factor in the number of theater’s a film shows in…but 2015 was still full of duds. By just using films shown in 2000+ theaters we get 3 out of 10 of the worst films coming from this year, and if you total all categories we have 7 of the worst 30 films coming from 2015…and that is actually misleading since some films show up multiple times (despite being stinkers, a studio may double down and increase the number of screens to try to beat the odds, so a film that sucked at 2000 screens may show up again on the 2500 screen list; meaning that there is actually less than 30 unique films in this list, but still 7 unique films from this year. I know, I said it was Byzantine.) That’s not even counting films that earned decently but still lost money, like Pan or Jupiter Ascending (remember that turd!?)
What Does it All Mean?
The real image the box office numbers are showing us is not a glorious home-run contest, where titanic sluggers are crushing long balls out of the park all day, but rather a bloated score card created by one or two hitters who will swing at just about anything, striking out far more often than they connect. So basically Manny Ramirez. This year, though not the pinnacle, saw 688 unique films released to theaters. That is nearly 150 more than 2010, which nearly out-earned us this year. The number of films which earned at least 25 million dollars at the box office shrank this year to the lowest level since 2001, a year in which 200 fewer films were released.
My hot take on these trends is that we’re in the middle of a surplus. The number of films is up, while the value of those films is way down. With a dwindling market-share, caused by Video on Demand and alternative media provided by small studios like Netflix and HBO and even You-Tube, Hollywood has decided to try to outspend the problem, flooding the market with product in the hopes that one huge oil-strike will balance out a dozen busts. So far, it seems to be working for those with the most ability to spend. Sure, Universal put out Jem and the Holograms…but it also put out Furious 7, Minions and Jurassic World. Disney took it on the chin with Tomorrowland and George Lucas’ Strange Magic…but they also had Age of Ultron and The Force Awakens. 600 million dollars in two weeks can sure drill a lot of dry wells.
Where are We Headed?
Will huge studios continue to throw money at the problem? Are we going to see a marked up-tick in number of films each year as even small studios cast around wildly for a hit? I think not. Very few companies can sustain this pace, and for those companies that can continue on this way, most do not need to. Disney certainly does not need to. It has a money printing machine in the Marvel and Star Wars franchises. If they only released those films, they’d still make a mint, and they have Pixar in their back pocket should we ever get tired of light-sabers and magic hammers. With earnings so dismal for so many of the smaller productions, the vast majority of the field is going to have to tighten up. Another wrinkle is that we’re seeing an emergence of home media that can finally rival the big screen. We’re no longer seeing cut-rate productions starring no-names. Being in a Hollywood picture used to be considered slumming it for Broadway talent, but that stigma fell as tastes changed. Likewise, starring in a television program was considered the last hurrah of a fading film star. No longer. Big names and big budgets are going straight to streaming services more often these days. They have an installed audience. You don’t need to advertise your new Netflix film, they have 23 million users in North America who are going to see your new product just by signing in.
I don’t think 2015 is anywhere near a nadir or dark night of the soul for Hollywood. This isn’t a crash…yet. The trends need to be heeded, though. A market where only known quantities can have success and where it is getting harder and harder to find profits outside of sequels and franchises is bad for consumers and lovers of film. It is still not too late. Upping production has proven to be only successful in limited fashion. Perhaps focusing on quality will prove to be a more enduring strategy. This doesn’t just mean making artsy-fartsy schlock. Gravity was not a great story, but was a damn impressive piece of cinema, only really worth seeing in 3D, the definition of a must-see in theaters product. Viewing movies at the theater is becoming a spectacle, and fans are tending to see only blockbusters that promise something you can’t get at home. With better production values from small venues and the rise of 4k home theaters, exactly what qualifies as a “big screen experience” is going to be up for debate.
*Most of my raw data and numbers are courtesy of Box Office Mojo (the rest is Wikipedia, if you want to fact check!) If you love the nitty-gritty of movie sausage making, head over there and give them some love.