In a theater near you: the box-office blues

The Force aside, slide continues

June 29, 2005|By Dan Thanh Dang and Stephen Kiehl | Dan Thanh Dang and Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

Anyone wondering where all the moviegoers have gone, says 30-year-old Sherry Wright, need only do the math.

To catch a flick at the AMC Owings Mills theater, where her family prefers to go, she would have to pay $8.50 each for three tickets: her own, her boyfriend's and his 12-year-old daughter's. Add $5.50 apiece for her boyfriend's two younger daughters and her own daughter and son, all of whom qualify for children's rates. Throw in small sodas priced at $3 each, large sodas for the adults at $4 each and some popcorn at $5 per bucket. Forget about Goobers, Jujubes or M&Ms.

The grand total for a family night out could wind up costing as much as a month of cable and Internet access.

"It's not cost-effective anymore to go to the movies," says Wright, a billing analyst for a large heating and plumbing company. "It's expensive just for two people to go. I don't want to blow $40 or $50, especially when you might leave disappointed.

"It's not worth it," the Highlandtown resident says.

Pity the poor picture houses.

Reports on the drop in movie attendance this summer - down 9 percent from last year - have generated even more ink than the ever-so public and squishy Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes union. For 18 straight weekends, box-office revenue has been lower than it was during comparable weeks last year - the longest such decline since 1985, according to Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box-office revenue. Worse, ticket sales have been sliding for three consecutive years now.

Hollywood is hoping that an earth-shaking performance by Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds, the alien-invasion movie that opens today, will rescue the film industry from its summer malaise, but no film released so far has managed to stem the tide.

Speculation about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's "are-they-or-aren't-they" relationship - splashed across the front page of gossip magazines like Us Weekly and Star - may have fueled Mr. & Mrs. Smith's $50.3 million opening-week performance, but the movie has not become a powerhouse that draws viewers in week after week.

Russell Crowe may have generated news when he threw a telephone at a hotel employee, but the buzz didn't boost the box-office figures for Cinderella Man; it pulled in a mere $43.9 million in the three weeks since it landed in theaters.

Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith raked in $348 million in five weeks, but even the Force failed to inject enough enthusiasm in box-office sales this year to overcome declining ticket sales. Batman Begins' $72.9 million draw in one week almost saved the day, but not quite. The slump continues.

Might it be that movie magic has lost its sparkle?

After all, in recent years, movie-theater management has tried practically everything to lure movie audiences back into the theater, including offering stadium seating, body-jarring sound systems, mommy-friendly showings, child care, valet parking, arcades, full-course dinners, alcohol and, in some cases, adjacent bars that allow viewers to mingle before and after the show.

Industry leaders say the downward blip is temporary.

"The product this year hasn't inspired people to the level it has in year's past," says Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "That, combined with so many options for people's entertainment, pulling them in all different directions, makes it more challenging to get people into theaters."

Americans are still consuming movies, but in different ways than before. Consumers spent $21.2 billion renting and buying DVDs last year - up 30 percent from 2003. And with increasingly sophisticated home-entertainment centers, many people prefer to watch movies at home. An Associated Press-AOL poll released this month found that 73 percent of respondents preferred to watch movies at home, with 22 percent favoring the theater.

Even Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh acknowledged the evolution of the movie industry when he announced last month that he formed a partnership with 2929 Entertainment to direct six films that would debut simultaneously in movie theaters and on DVD, pay-per-view cable and satellite television.

There are other offenders chipping away at the theater-going pastime. Any blame game should also include high-ticket prices, obnoxious audiences, pre-movie commercials and DVD sales.

With so many options, Rick Huber says he can't remember the last time he went to a theater.

Why bother when he can enjoy films in his Canton home on a 36-inch flat-screen TV complete with $1,500 speakers, receivers, subwoofers and Dolby Digital system? On a recent Tuesday, 40-year-old Huber was returning two DVDs of HBO's Western, Deadwood, to the local Blockbuster. He rents an average of two movies a day, either through his $15-a-month membership with Netflix or $15 trial membership with Blockbuster.

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