This summer, it's a Tale of Two Box Offices. The best-of-times part of the scenario: Only ten movies have ever made more than a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales, and three of those have happened this summer. First was 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,' then this past weekend, 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2,' and now, a couple days later, 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon.'
As of August 2, according to distributor Paramount, the robot threequel has scored $1.004 billion. Without adjusting for inflation, that makes it the ninth highest-grossing movie of all time. 'Harry Potter' is slightly ahead at No. 8, with $1.016 billion, and 'Pirates' is in sixth place with $1.033 billion.
So how is it possible (and this is the worst-of-times part of the scenario) that 2011's domestic box office is lagging behind 2010's by 4 percent? According to Variety, year-to-date grosses come to about $6.8 billion, nearly $300 million behind the $7.1 billion in tickets sold during the first seven months of last year. What's more, not even this August's handful of potential blockbusters (like 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' and 'Conan the Barbarian') are expected to be enough to close the gap. How can a summer with an unprecedented number of billion-dollar movies still result in a box office slump?
Variety's analysis doesn't provide an answer, but it surely has to do with the changing habits of you, the moviegoer.
Despite what has largely been a robust summer, 2011 has been marked by movies that underperformed expectations. The first four months were so full of flops that not even the successes of summer have been able to make up all of the lost ground. (At the beginning of summer, the gap was 7 percent.)
Even the movies that did well owe a great deal to overseas audiences. Sure, the fourth 'Pirates' has earned a billion, but 77 percent of that came from outside North America. At home, it grossed $238 million, the lowest domestic take of the four films.
This summer has been marked by old franchises that are winding down, like 'Harry Potter,' or running out of steam. At $340 million so far, the latest 'Transformers' (which both Michael Bay and Shia LaBeouf have said will be the last installment for them) is unlikely to surpass the $402 million domestic take of 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.' The 'Kung Fu Panda' sequel fell short of the original's American earnings by more than $50 million. Even mighty Pixar failed to drum up much domestic interest in a 'Cars' sequel; of 12 Pixar features released to date, 'Cars 2' ranks 11th.
The search for new franchises to replace the obsolescent ones has been hit or miss. There have been a lot of new superhero titles launched this season, but audiences seem to be suffering not just from superhero fatigue, but superhero origin-story fatigue. The highest-grossing comic-book title of the summer to date is 'Thor' (though 'Captain America: The First Avenger' may still surpass it), and its domestic take didn't even top $200 million.
Old-school stars have also failed to draw viewers the way they once did. Harrison Ford ('Cowboys & Aliens'), Jim Carrey ('Mr. Popper's Penguins') and Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts ('Larry Crowne') haven't been big box office attractions. Many of this summer's biggest films (including 'Transformers,' 'Thor,' 'Bridesmaids' and 'X-Men: First Class') don't owe their success to star power at all.
The other source of disappointment has been 3D. This year has seen more 3D movies than ever, and the novelty seems to have worn off for audiences. There were a lot of slapdash, last-minute conversions from 2D to 3D, and moviegoers haven't taken the bait. But even for big blockbuster movies that were relying on 3D to boost the box office, American audiences tended to prefer the 2D versions. 3D helped make 'Transformers' a hit (60 percent of the opening weekend gross came from 3D screens), but for most movies, 3D represents less than 40 percent of the domestic take. (Overseas, however, audiences are still enchanted with 3D, one reason why the foreign share of their worldwide take has been so lopsided.)
There has been one unexpected bright spot this summer: R-rated comedies. 'The Hangover Part II' seemed guaranteed to be a big hit, and 'Bridesmaids' lived up to its strong advance hype, but then came 'Bad Teacher' and 'Horrible Bosses' and 'Friends With Benefits,' and still, the market for raunchy laughs with appeal to older audiences hadn't been saturated. Look for similar success for 'The Change-Up' when it opens this weekend.
All these trends suggest that American ticketbuyers have made some changes in their moviegoing habits. It's long been accepted as a truism that the moviegoing experience is increasingly unpleasant (rude audiences, sticky floors, indifferent projection and sound quality), that the slumping economy and rising ticket prices don't help, and that the growing ease of watching movies at home or online (especially with the ever-shrinking window between theatrical and home-viewing release dates) is further keeping people out of theaters. But these newly-observed trends -- dissatisfaction with 3D, disenchantment with old franchises and old stars, lack of interest in new superhero origin stories -- seem to be depressing the domestic box office even further
Here at Moviefone, we'd like to know if you think these observations are true. Are you finding you've changed your moviegoing habits in recent months? If so, why?
And what is it about the movies you have seen in theaters this summer that made you decide it would be worth it to buck those trends? Let us know in the comments below.
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.