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If studios want better attendance, let them drop ticket prices

I suggest you buy a ticket to Little Fockers or Green Hornet. Just out of charity.

Apparently they're not very good, but it seems Hollywood needs cheering up. Recent headlines suggest an acute state of depression: "Box office a bummer," "Audiences crumble in 2010" and "Hollywood's biggest flop? It's ticket sales."

The apparent crisis is hard to ignore. Attendance was down 5 per cent across North America, making 2010 the worst attended movie year in a decade. Most recently, we've now seen a 10-week run where the box office has fallen below last year's levels. A series of Christmas stiffs - The Tourist, How Do You Know, Gulliver's Travels - drained the light from the holiday season. What has gone wrong after the celebratory season of 2009?

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"Are movies losing their mojo?" Entertainment Weekly dared ask. Not the sacred movie mojo! Clearly, it's time for a serious diagnosis.

Let's begin with a look at the patient's file. Let's see: Under "Hollywood slump," we find this Time magazine report: "The nation's box-office receipts in cinema are currently estimated as 15 per cent less than they were a year ago. For this decrease the cinema industry blames the U. S. business recession. But other explanations have been suggested: 1) the top heavy ratio of bad motion pictures to good ones; 2) the obviously bad business move of building up cinema personalities and then letting the radio make them too familiar; 3) the lure of bingo and other catchpenny diversions of the nation's entertainment dollar."

Well, the part about the economic recession and too many bad movies certainly rings true, though I was surprised to hear about radio overexposure and the bingo threat, until I saw the dateline: March, 1938. Still, if you substitute "too many talk shows" and "video games and the Internet" the argument is familiar.

As it happens, 1938 represented a real Hollywood slump, one that left the studios weak when dealing with federal anti-trust regulators, which a decade later led to the end of the classic, studio-era system. There were some other transformative downturns in Hollywood's history with the arrival of television in the fifties, and then again in the late sixties during major ownership changes. That time, the economic problems led to an artistic boon, as studios opened their doors to a younger generation of directors known as the New Hollywood.

Slumps, like the movies, aren't what they used to be. In the modern, post-1980 era, these downturns are recognized as recurrent phenomena in a cyclic business. There are bad years (an 11 per cent drop in attendance in 1985, or 8 per cent in 2005), but the movies aren't in overall decline. North American movie-ticket sales began gradually rising since about 1992, peaking at 1.6 billion ticket sales in 2002, dropping in 2005, then recovering again in 2006. Last year's attendance slipped to 1.35 billion ticket sales, but there was also a drop in the number of movies in wide releases, from 158 in 2009, to 141 last year.

The diagnosis? A mild case of the jitters, exacerbated by hypocrisy. Last year the Hollywood box office saw the second highest annual box office in its history (after 2009), earning more than $10.5-billion. The profits came from jacked-up ticket prices, especially on 3D releases. If the studios and theatres really wanted higher attendance, they could drop the price of admissions.

So don't waste your pity on Hollywood's slump-dog billionaires. Given the long row of blockbusters and 3-D movies scheduled for the next few months, there's every reason to believe the American movie industry will earn another record revenue haul in 2011.

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The great slump of 1938, after all, was followed by Hollywood's Golden Year, which gave us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Ninotchka and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to name a few of the historic titles. Considering that the Hollywood patient isn't actually sick, prospects for a full recovery appear excellent.

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About the Author
Film critic

Liam Lacey is a film critic for The Globe and Mail. More

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