Real D 3-D

I was reading a magazine article recently in which Hollywood moguls and theater owners were wringing their hands about the latest big slump in ticket sales, spelling imminent doom for the whole industry. There were many reasons offered for the slump -- competition from new home-video technology, the rising price of going out to the movies, and the mediocre quality of the films themselves. There were, however, some signs of hope, such as pay-per-view options that were just awaiting the right technology to be workable, or the likelihood of increased demand for quality productions to feed the new 24/7 multichannel appetite for programming. Oh, and one other thing:

The article I was reading appeared 60 years ago in Life magazine.

Boom and bust cycles come and go in Hollywood, but panic springs eternal. Today, the heirs of those studio executives and theater owners quoted in Life in 1951 are worried that ticket sales for 2011 are down 20 percent from the same period last year. The culprits are pretty much the same: new home-video technology (TV then, hi-def digital today), high ticket prices and mediocre movies. The proposed solutions were the same, too. (It's fascinating that the industry was dreaming of pay cable and pay-per-view streaming long before they had the technology to deliver them.)

It's especially worth noting, however, that six decades ago the movie industry did muddle through and find a way out of its woes. The reasons for today's slump may be no more complicated (and may even be simpler) than they were then, so there's no reason to think Hollywood won't muddle through again.

In a front page article, The Los Angeles Times noted the concerns of the studios and movie theater owners when they convened for the annual CinemaCon in Las Vegas a couple weeks ago. Both groups agreed that the movies so far this year haven't been that compelling. That's not the same as saying they aren't good, only that they're not appealing to broad swaths of moviegoers. Indeed, Entertainment Weekly's PopWatch blog crunched some numbers and found that the average Metacritic scores for movies this year and for the same period last year are about the same.

Some experts have cited high ticket prices as a factor. The average ticket price across the country in 2010 was $7.89 (for the final quarter of 2010, it topped $8). Certainly, ticket prices have risen about 5 percent over the last year, but they've done so every year since 2006. At the same time, the number of tickets sold has declined steadily over the last decade. As a result, total box office for 2010 was down 1.4 percent from its record high in 2009.

Avatar sequelsThen again, the major studios released only 110 movies in 2010, down 11 from 2009. No one seems to be taking that into account. Another couple of elephants in the room being ignored: in early 2011, there was no 'Avatar' (which made most of its $750 million in domestic sales during the first months of 2010) and no 'Alice in Wonderland' ($334 million domestic). Billion-dollar movies are rare; two in theaters during the same three-month period is rarer still. If anything, last spring's big box office was a fluke, so it's unreasonable to judge this year by 2010's benchmarks.

Again, it's not really about quality, just about creating and marketing movies that mass audiences want to see. The 3D 'Avatar' and 'Alice' were widely criticized for their 2D storytelling and 1D characters, but people really wanted to see a couple of visionary filmmakers let their imaginations run free.

Much of the take from those two movies (and indeed, much of the rise in average recent ticket prices) came from 3D surcharges. Sixty years ago, the advent of 3D was one of the gimmicks that was supposed to lure couch potatoes out of the house and back into theaters. Didn't quite work out that way, which hasn't stopped the movie studios from doubling and tripling down on the format in the wake of 'Avatar.' Industry folk quoted in the recent Times piece profess wariness about killing the golden bespectacled goose and exhausting viewers' patience with superfluous and poorly done 3D films, but that's not stopping Hollywood from releasing an unprecedented 40 movies this year that will cost you extra for glasses rental.

One other solution recommended 60 years ago that probably won't take: austerity. Low overhead and modest budgets were going to be the new rule. Didn't happen then, and, despite recent layoffs at the studios, it isn't going to happen now. Studios will still spend lavishly to make action blockbusters, operating on the theory that it's better to spend $150 million to make $300 million than it is to spend $40 million (on a quality drama for grown-ups, like 'The Social Network') and earn $100 million, even if the latter boasts a better return on investment.

And that may be the right idea. Back in the 1950s, it was lavish spectacle (biblical epics, musicals and other wide-screen extravaganzas) that helped save the industry. This time around, if summer movies like 'Thor,' 'Green Lantern,' 'Cars 2,' 'Pirates of the Caribbean 4,' or 'Harry Potter 8' turn out to be the smash hits everyone expects them to be, this spring's wave of hand-wringing will be forgotten.

Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.

Why Have Movie Ticket Sales Fallen 20 Percent So Far in 2011?
The movies stink.672 (27.6%)
Ticket prices are too high.659 (27.0%)
It was a cold, brutal winter.22 (0.9%)
Gas prices have been too high to go out much.52 (2.1%)
With cable, pay-per-view, and Internet streaming and rentals, there's no need to leave my couch.129 (5.3%)
My fellow theater patrons are rude jerks.57 (2.3%)
Why go out to see a new movie I can see at home in two months?107 (4.4%)
All of the above.740 (30.4%)