Is a slow winter a sign of a sea change in moviegoing?
In the early part of 2009, two stars of modest drawing power each premiered new movies. The actors, Liam Neeson and Kevin James, had never on their own opened a movie to significant effect, and the January-February period their movies were entering had historically been a slow one.
But when the dust settled, both Neeson and James had major hits on their hands: "Taken" and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" each topped $145 million in domestic receipts, and both landed in the box-office top 20 for the year, a rarity for a winter film.
As chance would have it, Neeson and James each came out with new movies again in the early part of this year. The results, however, haven't quite been the same. James' "The Dilemma" -- despite the accompanying presence of the once-bankable Vince Vaughn -- was by many accounts a disappointment, failing to reach $50 million in the U.S. Neeson's "Unknown" is the surprise leader so far this holiday weekend with a total of $21.8 million tallied between Friday and Sunday. But it still came in about 15% below the first three days of "Taken" and doesn't seem, at this stage, to be on that film's same upward trajectory.
The James/Neeson comparison -- as close to scientific as one gets in the hurly-burly world of box office -- highlights a question that began creeping up in January and now seems as ironclad as Neeson's Euro-based fighting skills, namely: Where are the winter hits?
"Taken" and "Blart" weren't the only breakouts back in January and February of '09. Three other movies that came out in that period also reached the respectable threshold of $75 million in domestic box office. And in 2010, a total of five movies again hit that mark. Sure, some of them were A-list extravaganzas that could be expected to do well ("The Book of Eli," Shutter Island, "Valentine's Day"), but others were far from sure things ("Dear John," "Percy Jackson and the Olympians").
This year it's been a different story. With just one weekend left in February, only a single 2011 release has topped $75 million -- Seth Rogen's "The Green Hornet" -- and even that was considered just a modest success. (Two other movies, "Just Go With It" and "No Strings Attached," have an outside shot of reaching that number.) It's not as though there have been been a dearth of star-driven movies, either; in addition to Rogen, this winter's films feature the likes of Natalie Portman, Justin Bieber and Adam Sandler.
If it were just a slow January and February, you might be able to explain it away as a winter aberration. But overall attendance has been showing weekly year-to-year declines for what is now more than three months, a drop that can hardly be attributed solely to last year's "Avatar" dominance. And 2010 ended with the lowest attendance level of any year in the previous decade, save for a recession-plagued 2008. The U.S. has added nearly 30 million people since 2000. But the number of people who've attended movies has gone down.
Films are hardly the only form of entertainment to suffer declines. Television -- particularly televised sports -- has been bleeding viewers for years. As recently as 2002 about 10 million households turned in to the NBA All-Star game. Sunday's telecast is expected to draw only about half that. In many ways, the multiplex has gotten off easy -- or, if you're inclined to pessimism, is headed for a bigger fall.
There is, of course, some good news for anyone worried about the health of American moviegoing: the remarkable resilience over the last few months of quirky, filmmaker-driven movies, as we've been documenting in this space and as my colleague Patrick Goldstein explored in this excellent column recently.
Coming into the fall, few might have predicted that a British period dramedy, a Coen brothers' western, a psycho-sexual drama about ballet and a dense story about Facebook would each outdraw every movie the studios would release in January and February. Yet they have.
It's still too early in the year to announce a slump for studio movies. And it's too early in the resurgence of grown-up films to proclaim them back for good. But if the bad news is that moviegoing in general is down, the good news may be that moviegoing for quality films is up.
Photo: A scene from "The Green Hornet." Credit: Sony Pictures