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Despite Popular Films, US Box Office Gross Declines - 2003-12-31

A blockbuster shot in New Zealand wraps up the film industry's year on a high note; but for the first time in more than a decade, the North American box office gross dropped from the previous year. With ticket sales declining, studio executives are asking "where did the audience go?"

Finding Nemo the computer-animated fish tale from Pixar Studios and distributed by Disney, is the undisputed box office champion of 2003 with some $340 million in domestic ticket sales and another $362 million from theaters around the world.

Disney also has the year's number two domestic hit. The entertainment conglomerate turned a popular theme park ride into a box office smash starring Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom. Pirates of the Caribean: Course of the Black Pearl took in $305 million at North American theaters and another $347 million in international ticket sales.

The two biggest films of the year Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribean are family films.

Peter Bart is editor-in-chief of the show business paper Daily Variety and he believes it is just coincidence, not a studio plan, that put family-friendly fare on top in 2003.

"Certainly this was a great year for films for that broad audience [but] the big concern for the major studios this year has been simply this: what is happening to that adult audience? Admissions, the number of people actually filling those seats, has been flat for the last few years," he said. "This is a double worry because, after all, the movie studios are owned by conglomerates that also own the TV broadcast networks. The young audience is certainly defecting from the TV networks. Indeed, the main segment of the media that seems to be gaining is really cable television. Other than that everyone in the entertainment business is trying to figure out where all the bodies are going."

One factor is ticket prices are rising. At cinemas in New York and Los Angeles an adult ticket now costs more than $10; the national average is above $6, up 15 cents from 2002; so even if the total box office gross keeps up with last year, film audiences are dwindling as production expenses skyrocket. The average American studio film in 2003 cost more than $60 million to produce and another $30 or $40 million to market; with such huge sums at stake avoiding risk has become a top priority.

On paper, at least, the action-romance Gigli, starring celebrity couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, looked like a surefire hit and not - as it turned out - the year's top flop, a fact Affleck says they have had to accept.

"Sometimes a movie just doesn't work and there's not a thing you can do about it," he said. "That's the nature of taking a risk in a creative medium, but there is nothing I would have done differently. I suppose I could say that Jen and I made a mistake in the sense that we were too available. We were too happy and figured 'what's the worst that could happen?' Well, we found out the answer to that question."

At the other end of the risk scale is The Return of the King director Peter Jackson's rousing conclusion to The Lord of the Rings trilogy: a $300 million gamble that is paying off handsomely for its studio, New Line Cinema. Elijah Wood stars as the hobbit Frodo.

"The truth is The Lord of the Rings will be around forever and has been embraced in such an incredible way by the world and has somehow eked its way into pop culture," he said. "It has become this massive thing that I think will carry on for years and years to come."

It is the exception that proves the rule to journalist and former studio executive Bart, who says the joy of creativity may be disappearing from the "dream factory."

"The head of one studio confided in me the other day that it was dismaying, but he does not look forward to seeing that many of the pictures his own studio produces," he said. "I can understand that. In the 1970's and even the early 80's there was nothing wrong with making a picture simply because you looked forward to seeing it. I remember when I was president of a company called Lorimar we went ahead and made Peter Sellers' movie Being There. We didn't think it was going to be a global blockbuster; we simply wanted to see the movie. That sort of motivation, selfish and impractical, nonetheless resulted in some good pictures and some successful ones. I don't think you get the decision-making process like that any more."

Still, Bart predicts a prosperous 2004 for American show business is possible.

"But in order to do so the guys who run the town have to take a few more risks, a few more chances, gamble on new stars and new stories and every picture can't have a Roman numeral behind it," he said.

Peter Bart is editor in chief of Daily Variety.

This story is part of VOA's 2003 in Review series