March 5, 2021

Summer Movie Attendance Continues to Erode

From the first weekend in May to Labor Day, a period that typically accounts for 40 percent of the film industry’s annual ticket sales, domestic box-office revenue is projected to total $4.38 billion, an increase from last year of less than 1 percent, according to, which compiles box-office data.

The bad news: higher ticket prices, especially for the 18 films released in 3-D (up from seven last summer), drove the increase. Attendance for the period is projected to total about 543 million, the lowest tally since the summer of 1997, when 540 million people turned up.

Hollywood has now experienced four consecutive summers of eroding attendance, a cause for alarm for both studios and the publicly traded theater chains. One or two soft years can be dismissed as an aberration; four signal real trouble.

But there was a silver lining. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” and a spate of superhero films, including “Captain America: The First Avenger” and “Thor,” generated enough interest to reduce the box-office hole created by winter flops like “Mars Needs Moms.” After the first quarter, ticket sales were down a staggering 20 percent compared with the same period in 2010. Sales lag 4 percent for the year.

“In an economy that has been unfortunately pretty depressing, the marketplace expanded to accommodate big pictures stacked back to back to back,” said Dan Fellman, president for domestic distribution at Warner Brothers.

The studio, owned by Time Warner, released two of North America’s top three summer movies. Its final Harry Potter installment was No. 1 with about $375 million in ticket sales and “The Hangover Part II,” which took in over $254 million, was third. “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” released by Paramount, a division of Viacom, was second with about $350 million in sales.

On a global basis, three movies took in more than $1 billion, the industry’s new threshold of smash success. Those films were “Deathly Hallows — Part 2,” “Dark of the Moon” and Walt Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”

However, the old Hollywood power source — star wattage — continued to dim. Audiences still turned out for Johnny Depp in the Pirates series, but stars otherwise failed to draw crowds.

Julia Roberts and Tom Hanks flamed out “Larry Crowne.” Jim Carrey, who almost seems to be adopting a creepy public persona of late, flopped in “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Harrison Ford and Daniel Craig fell off their box-office horses in “Cowboys Aliens.” The careers of Kevin James (“Zookeeper”) and Ryan Reynolds (“Green Lantern”) also cooled off.

Three movie companies managed to breathe life into aging or moribund franchises or seed new ones — Hollywood’s equivalent of home runs. Marvel Studios, a division of Disney, already has sequels to “Thor” and “Captain America” in the works, while Sony’s movie studio has moved a follow-up to “The Smurfs,” which came out of nowhere to sell over $132 million in tickets in North America (and is closing in on $400 million worldwide).

Efforts by 20th Century Fox, owned by the News Corporation, to restart its “X-Men” and “Planet of the Apes” franchises were particularly impressive. Fox took creative risks with “X-Men: First Class” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and it was rewarded with hits that will spawn sequels.

“The lesson for us is that different and original is always hard and always a risk but has great upside,” said Tom Rothman, co-chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment. “While both of those films had genetic material in common with their original franchises, both were very, very original pieces.” Notably, “First Class” and “Rise” received some of the summer’s best reviews.

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