Addressing the Box Office “Slump”

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The last couple of weeks have been quite brutal as movies just don’t seem to be performing anywhere near where they should be. Even our fairly modest predictions for Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the latest “Alvin and the Chipmunks” movie were considerably high compared to how they fared, and at least the former was clearly a sequel that many people were seemingly looking forward to. Anyone who follows NRG tracking must be scratching their heads because both those movies had high awareness and interest, pointing to much bigger openings, but ending up below $40 million after having such successful previous films is truly worrying.

There’s no denying that the recession and the economic slump combined with increased movie ticket prices is hurting the box office and that people are being a lot more careful about what they go out and pay to see. Some might point to the weaker year in terms of the quality of movies with nothing on the level of an Inception or Avatar to really challenge moviegoers and get them talking. Instead, we had a down September and October, and November wasn’t that much better with many of the Thanksgiving releases disappointing. Even the latest “Twilight” is far behind its predecessor in terms of bringing in audiences and it won’t get close to $300 million.

This past weekend was a far cry from four years ago when Will Smith’s I Am Legend opened against the original Alvin and the Chipmunks and they opened with $120 million between them in three days. The new “Sherlock Holmes” and “Alvin” movies made roughly half that between them and that was already after two down weeks, one with no new movies and one where the top movie made less than $13 million.

Even though things look pretty grim leading into Christmas, we’re only down 13% from last year when TRON: Legacy opened with around $44 million. What is worrying is that in the next week, there are five more new movies and this past weekend’s box office champ Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol will expand nationwide and you have to wonder if things are going to improve with so many strong choices in theaters.

Yes, we’re in a slump, but maybe people have just been waiting until the Christmas weekend when they’re finished with their work for the year and school’s out, to go to the movies? Even if we don’t have any huge numbers this coming week due to the slower Christmas Eve, it’s all going to come down to whether we’re going to get the traditional box office bump that always comes in the week after Christmas or whether the glut of new movies is going to keep any of them from breaking out. Either way, we don’t expect to see any sort of Avatar breakout this year with Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol being the only one that might crack $200 million. (Originally, we thought the same about Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and who knows? Maybe it will gain a lot of word-of-mouth business in January, but it’s not going to be the type of family fare that normally does well over the holidays.)

Fortunately, there are a number of tried and true franchises next year and maybe the elections will give Americans a bit of hope that the country’s economic problem is going to take center stage and something will be done about it and then we can all go back to the movies.

Check back later this week to read our thoughts on the busy upcoming Christmas weekend.