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In a theater near you: the box-office blues


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.

"Two movie tickets is worth a month of my movie rentals," says Huber, who works at a printing company in the Mount Royal community. "Plus, going to a theater isn't what it used to be. People are talking. You can't enjoy the movie anymore and you can't ask them to be quiet. I've done that once. The guy behind me didn't take it well."

Paying a lot of money to see a bad movie is irritating enough, but paying a lot of money to see a bad movie and suffering with poor audience behavior can send a person over the edge.

Headlines abound about bad theater behavior across the country, from the case of a 19-year-old San Diego man who was beaten in January after asking someone to turn off a cell phone to a Wayne, N.J., melee that same month in which police had to empty a movie theater during a showing of Coach Carter after a crowd of 400 began to yell, dance, throw frozen snacks and harass employees.

"I used to go to the movies every week," says 45-year-old Tara Gray, a Catonsville resident who is station manager for GTV, Howard County government's television station. "I got sick of going to the movies because people annoyed me. People were bringing kids to R-rated movies. They were chomping on their nachos and chicken wings. Their cell phones are ringing. People were kicking my chair. These two women talked behind me the whole time. I was so mad."

These days, Gray simply rents DVDs and invites her friends over for a movie screening on her 51-inch TV.

"There's something much more pleasant about hanging out in your underwear watching a movie and drinking a beer," said Natalia Ballestero, a 26-year-old graphic designer who lives in Charles Village. She's only seen a few films in theaters this year, preferring instead to sit down with a DVD after work.

Indeed, the movie industry already makes more money on DVD sales than on the film box office. But officials aren't ready to give up on theatrical releases.

To look at the numbers from a brighter angle, movie attendance was near a 35-year high last year; 1.53 billion tickets were sold in the United States, compared with 920 million in 1970. While tickets sales have fallen from a high of 1.63 billion in 2002, last year marked the third year in a row that admissions exceeded 1.5 billion - a number not previously reached since 1959, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

In addition, the summer is still young. There could still be a surprise hit like last year's The Passion of the Christ, which was passed over by the major studios but went on to make $370 million. Also a surprise last year was Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, which made about $100 million.

There have been no such wonders this year, and some films that were expected to be blockbusters - such as the Orlando Bloom vehicle Kingdom of Heaven and the action film XXX: State of the Union - instead fell flat.

"We could still have that surprise this year," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. That studio has several big summer films still to come - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory next month and The Dukes of Hazzard in August - and Fellman thinks fortunes will turn.

"No matter what business you're in, whether you're selling cars or selling securities, you're never going to have an uptick every single year," Fellman said. "Yes, there's a downtick in the box office, but I believe it's temporary. And I don't think it's time to panic."

Like many others, Fellman prefers to take a long view.

Americans are going to the movies more, not less, according to the theater owners association. According to the group, the average number of trips to the cinema in 1970 was 4.5 per person; in 2004, the average was 5.2 trips per person.

While numbers are down a bit this year, industry executives say they expect a rebound next year. For the summer of 2006, they're predicting that audiences will return for a slew of sequels to former blockbusters: Mission: Impossible 3, X-Men 3, Superman Returns, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest and Indiana Jones 4.

"As long as there are unmated members of the species," said former Sony Pictures Entertainment President Mel Harris, "people will still go to the movies."

Or for a more sure thing, movie houses could try the one thing Belita Wanderer, Wright, Huber and Gray all say theater owners haven't yet tried: Just lower the ticket prices.

A recent Gallup report showed that while nearly half of Americans say they are going to the movies less often, seven in 10 people polled say they would be more likely to attend showings "if tickets and concessions cost less money."

"I love going to the movies," says Wanderer, a 51-year-old Tennessean who is motoring around the country with her husband in a 52-foot boat. "In my single days, I used to go every weekend. Now, I go maybe three or four times a year. The cost is the biggest factor. It ends up being a $50 deal just to see a movie.

"I bet if they lowered the price, people would go back."

Sun staff writer Sam Sessa and researcher Jean Packard contributed to this article.

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