Mission: Impossible -- Ghost Protocol raked in another $30 million over the weekend, which is certainly good news for lots of people in Hollywood, but the bigger box office picture is a dire one. With a final tally of $10.2 billion in 2011, a 3 percent drop in revenue from 2010, movie attendance was the lowest it's been in 16 years. Something particularly bad seems to be happening to the multiplexes. What's killing the movies?
Well, ha, OK, that's maybe overreaching a little bit. Movies are far from dead or dying, we're still talking about nine-digit revenues here, but steadily lagging attendance indicates that something is ailing the industry. Roger Ebert weighed in on the downward trend last week, offering the same diagnoses that many others have: Theater audiences are annoying, tickets and snacks are too expensive, it's easy to watch movies cheaply at home, etc. And those are all valid reasons for why movie theaters are decreasingly popular, but this year in particular, wasn't it just the damn movies' fault?
While there was certainly some quality at the cinemas this year, enough to put together a ten best list at least, as a whole the year in movies was just terribly dull, wasn't it? The summer was a bust, with all those limp superhero movies — dreary X-Men: First Class, ploddingly dopey Captain America, ludicrous Green Lantern — that wouldn't create even one Inception if they were all smooshed together into a super-movie. And this awards-movie season has been lackluster in its own way. There have been no must-see movies of quality that have everyone buzzing about Oscars and breakthroughs and all that exciting palaver. Remember Black Swan? For a few weeks last year it felt like everyone was talking about that crazy (and crazy good) movie. There was no analogue to that in 2011; we suffered from a severe dearth of Event Movies, whether we were hunting for summertime popcorn fare or wintertime prestige-ness. Even the finale of the Harry Potter franchise felt a little inconsequential, mostly because the first part of Deathly Hallows, released in 2010, was such a stronger film. Not even the boy wizard could conjure up droves of frantic audience members! (Did he try "Accio audience"?)
So few movies in 2011 demanded that we get up off our duffs and brave the elements and the unwashed masses to go to the theater. So yes, twenty-dollar prices and terrible cellphone talkers and all that certainly are general deterrents to heading to the multiplex, but usually we're willing to suffer all that if there's something that insists on the big screen experience. But 2011's movies just didn't have that urgency. That a year that saw the final Harry Potter movie and a new Twilight installment still managed to have the lowest moviegoing rate in sixteen years says something about the rest of the crop. We don't think people should be all doom and gloom about the movie business as we know it, but certainly a bum year like 2011 should do something to shake studios out of their comic book stupor and their old auteur coma (Did anyone see J. Edgar?). We love going to the movies! Most Americans do! But it all becomes too much pointless work when the movie we wind up seeing is something like Larry Crowne: On Stranger Tides.