Five (3) Things We’ve Learned in Five Years of Box Office Reports

Five years ago this week, launched its Box Office Report column. Each Sunday, or Monday on holiday weekends, I’ve laden readers with stats and analysis on the business of show: the winners, losers and trends of new movies.

The occasion of this anniversary (for which, hint, the traditional gift is wood) got me to wondering what’s changed in the film industry over the past half-decade. It turns out: lots.

2. Women do matter. For decades, Hollywood has trusted one narrow demographic — young males — to subsidize its big-budget productions. In fact, the gender split in the domestic audience is 50-50: women attend as many movies as men do. The studios must have figured that the few femme-angled blockbusters (like Mamma Mia!, which earned $610 million worldwide in 2008) were flukes, and that, in the absence of “women’s pictures,” the gals would go to movies made for guys. Statistics seemed to bear out that prejudice: Of the 12 top-grossing films of 2011, only one — The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 — boasted a leading character who was female.

Credit the Twilight success, which spurred other gynocentric franchises based on Young Adult novels, and the skew of girl-power animated features for the return of that beleaguered majority — women — to movie marquees. In 2012 The Hunger Games, Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Pixar’s Brave were among the year’s top eight films. And last year three of the top six had female protagonists: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Frozen and Gravity — all released in Oct. or Nov., outside the usual blockbuster summer season. Indeed, Catching Fire, with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead, became the first top-grossing film of any year since 1965 (Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music) with a woman in the primary, starring role.

Three other residents of last year’s top 10 (Despicable Me 2, Monsters University and Oz the Great and Powerful) attracted strong majorities of female viewers. Now Hollywood has to think of new femme heroines — as long as she’s a warrior, a princess or a lonely space traveler.

3. So do kids, old folks and Hispanics. Hollywood’s traditional wheelhouse — adults 18 to 49 years old — has recently slipped a gear: movie attendance of that age group is down. But younger and older viewers are swelling the grosses. “In 2013, the share of tickets sold t0 2-11 year olds was at its highest point since 2009,” the MPAA study reports, “and the share of tickets sold to 50-59 year olds was at an all time high.” Senior citizens (60-plus) are also attending in droves. So you’ll be seeing more kid-friendly animated features, and more roundups of elderly stars as in Lost Vegas — a Hangover for alterkockers — and Sly Stallone’s Expendables movies. Lucky oldsters.

The average American “Caucasian,” as the MPAA calls the white majority, goes to just three movies a year. Fortunately for Hollywood, Hispanics have taken up the slack. They “report the highest annual attendance per capita, attending on average six times per year.” Representing 17% of the U.S. population, Hispanics have accounted for more than 30% of the audience for comedies (Ride Along), action films (Furious 6), horror movies (The Purge) and war epics (Lone Survivor). They also made their own hit: the Spanish-language dramedy Instructions Not Included, starring Univision TV favorite Eugenio Derbez. In the U.S. it earned $44.5 million. That’s the biggest foreign-language gross since Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ — except that, for the bilingual Latinos who flocked to theaters, Instructions was in their own language.
5. A billion dollars ain’t what it used to be. Cameron’s Titanic, released in 1997, was the first movie to crack the billion-dollar barrier in worldwide gross. By Mar. 2009, when we started, four other pictures — Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the third Lord of the Rings, the second Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Batman sequel The Dark Knight — had joined Titanic by earning at least $1 billion. In the five years since, that number has grown to 18, including last year’s Iron Man Three and Frozen.
If the billionaire’s club isn’t so exclusive these days, it’s in part because Hollywood has learned to market its biggest movies to the expanding global market, but mainly because ticket prices keep climbing — up 30% since 2004 and 13% since 2008. Inflation tarnishes the billion-dollar sheen. In real dollars, at the domestic box office (the only numbers available), Titanic is fifth all-time, behind Gone With the Wind, Star Wars, The Sound of Music and E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Again in real dollars, Cameron’s Avatar is the only movie made in this century to appear in the all-time top 25. On this list, Iron Man Three is in 102nd place, Frozen in 109th.
So show some skepticism when you read stories about a new hit like Frozen passing The Lion King to achieve the “all-time record” for an animated feature, with nary a mention of inflation. In real dollars, or tickets sold, the double-princess movie lags behind at least dozen earlier Disney or Pixar cartoons. By that standard, Disney’s all-time animated hit is its first: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
And on a personal note: A (noninflationary) billion thanks to readers and editors for this first five years. We’ll check back in 2019 to see if the numbers and meanings of movies have felt other seismic changes.

And on a personal note: A (noninflationary) billion thanks to readers and editors for this first five years. We’ll check back in 2019 to see if the numbers and meanings of movies have felt other seismic changes.

1 + 4 at the source
Did I follow the list rules? Not too sure.