Last weekend at the box office, there was something for everyone-at least everyone who supposedly goes to movies anymore (read: teens and kids). There was Killers, starring celeb magazine faves Kathryn Heigl and Ashton Kutcher. There was Get Him to the Greek, starring MTV-generation icons Jonah Hill and Russell Brand. There was Marmaduke, one for the kiddies featuring Owen Wilson as a talking canine. And there was even the smart horror film Splice. And, yet, the box office winner of the weekend was Shrek Forever After, a movie that itself has fallen well short of expectations. Overall, last weekend’s take was 25 percent lower than the same weekend a year ago. And so far this year, movie attendance is down nearly 3 percent.
For two years now, Hollywood has been reveling in the notion that it is a countercyclical play-that when times are tough, people go to the pictures. But the painfully slow start to the summer season has sparked fresh waves of nausea in a town already dealing with changes in everything from how DVDs are sold to what kinds of shows work on television. Is the lack of sizzle this year because the latest crop of movies intrinsically suck? Are audiences finally getting tired of the same retread themes and sequels and comic-book adaptations?
The confounding lameness of a lot of movies is hardly new. But one thing that has changed over the past couple of years is the near-collapse of the independent film market. It’s now very hard for a quaint or thoughtful indie movie like, say, Neil Jordan’s Ondine to make much of a dent in the marketplace. The emphasis is on so-called tent poles and event movies-preferably something that can be shot or converted to 3-D so that it can earn a few extra nickels at the box office and convince audiences that they don’t want to just wait to get it on Netflix. Say what you will about it, but Avatar set a bar that is almost impossibly high for others to reach. The biggest hit of this year by far is Disney’s Alice in Wonderland-more than $1 billion in box office worldwide-and it neatly fit the bill. After that came Iron Man 2, which also validated the theory. But other event movies-Prince of Persia, Clash of the Titans, Robin Hood and Sex and the City 2-have missed their marks.
Looking at last weekend’s big drop, it’s obviously not smart to assume that Ms. Heigl and Mr. Kutcher can open a film. And despite the provenance of Greek-coming from the same crew who did Forgetting Sarah Marshall-it’s hard to expect a movie full of insidery Hollywood references to play great in the heartland.
Other explanations for Hollywood’s malaise don’t lay the blame squarely at the studios’ feet. It may just be that, on balance, the weather has been pleasant nationwide, so there has been less running to the movie theater to escape a storm or swelter. Or, let’s hope, the economy is finally turning a corner so people can start spending money on other things that they have had to do without, like vacations. And finally, it’s still early enough in the year that people will be streaming into the theaters with some of the highly anticipated summer hits yet ahead: Toy Story 3, Christopher Nolan’s Inception and the next Twilight installment chief among them.
We’ll see, said the blind man.