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B.O. faces May malaise

Tentpole openers can't offset overall 2003

If you believe the hype, the box office is blazing.

Media coverage suggests the record bows of “X2” and “The Matrix Reloaded” got the summer off to an explosive start.

A closer look at the data, however, offers a more ominous portrait of the summer as well as 2003 to date. Industrywide B.O. has shrunk for three straight weeks, leaving ’03 about 10% behind 2002 levels. Summer is already off 8%.

Whoops.

Comparisons, admittedly, are tough. Moviegoing last May hit stratospheric levels due to “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars, Episode II — Attack of the Clones,” both rare events and neither rated R, which “Matrix Reloaded” is. Coverage of the weekend factored that in: ” ‘Reloaded’ is big, but not bigger than Spidey,” read the headline in USA Today.

For a conglom-controlled industry obsessed with topping itself every year, the deficit is unsettling, especially as studios gear up for an ultra-competitive June and July. It’s a little early to start making wagers, but the annual record set last year of $9.5 billion suddenly looks vulnerable.

The last time annual B.O. declined was 1991, when it dipped 4.4%. Reports at the time blamed corporate turmoil and recession in the U.S. economy.

So what’s eating the grosses this year? Some theories:

  • Weaker product

By Memorial Day 2002, audiences had already sparked to quality wide releases such as “Ice Age,” “Panic Room,” “Insomnia,” “Changing Lanes,” “Unfaithful” and “About a Boy.” Platform juggernaut “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” launched in April. Adults in particular were well-served by that menu.

What, by contrast, are the best wide pics of ’03? It is not a distinguished list. “X2” and “The Recruit” come closest in terms of critical praise. “Dark Blue” was widely admired, but ranks as one of the year’s more egregious misfires to date.

Chart-toppers have included “Kangaroo Jack,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days” and “Bringing Down the House.” The inescapable conclusion: We are living in the Year of Popcorn.

  • Megaplexes

The Motion Picture Assn. of America and the National Assn. of Theater Owners have been vocal in publicizing the fact that U.S. screen count has hit a plateau after years of overbuilding. Hidden in the data released by the MPAA this spring, though, was a 10% rise in the number of megaplexes, defined as theaters with 16 or more screens.

To say megaplexes have changed the dynamics of the business is an understatement. Their great promise is variety. But the reality is something different. The biggest change is that audiences can more readily see their first-choice film, which is how mega-debuts eat up so much of the total weekend pie — 60% to 70% in many cases.

If the show they want is sold out, auds don’t have to buy a ticket to their second choice. They can just wait half an hour for the next showing of their first choice. The result is fewer “spillover” dollars for other films to collect.

The overall effect is monopolization. In other words, behemoths like “X2” or “Matrix Reloaded” use the elasticity of the megaplex to get on more screens and therefore hit a big number, but the overall business doesn’t necessarily grow as a result. It is the demise of the old saw, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

  • DVD

The film biz has always managed to thwart competing forms of entertainment, from television to the VCR.

DVD, having achieved the most rapid rate of home penetration in consumer electronics history, finally could be sapping some energy from the bigscreen marketplace.

Major tentpoles are not the Achilles’ heel in terms of DVD. People will always want to experience those as communal happenings.

Not every pic can be a tentpole, however: That is practically the mantra of home entertainment. Given ticket-price inflation and the ever-more-attractive price point and ubiquity of DVD, could the theatrical business reach a point of diminishing returns? The rest of ’03 should provide an interesting answer.

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