empty movie theater

Why Movies are Underperforming — The Obvious Answer

This is more of an addendum to my earlier rant about why all media feels disappointing these days. But focused on movies. But that’s a big chunk because pretty much all eyes are on movies these days.

Aren’t you sick of headlines that say “XYZ Underperforms at the box office”? Napoleon was out for two days and it was labeled as underperforming. I don’t know if these movies are good or bad or simply not interesting, they’re just underperforming and I don’t know what I’m supposed to take from that. The Marvels, Trolls: Band Together, The Little Mermaid, Fast X, Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, Elemental, Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, all underperforming. I think the only movie that didn’t underperform was Barbie.

What about the obvious answer? Movies are underperforming because they’re not going to theaters as much.

It has nothing to do with the quality or marketing of a movie. You could campaign the hell out of something and I bet it would still underperform. Why? Because why should I pick my ass up off the couch to go to a theater when I can watch it a few months down the road from my own house.

It’s been proven that people will trade convenience for quality every time. It’s the reason Blockbuster went the way of the dodo when Netflix rose up. It’s the reason we have frozen TV dinners and fast food.

Why hasn’t anyone done studies on this? It feels like journalists are staring at the box office numbers and going “durrr, I dunno why.”

And why shouldn’t I prefer streaming over theaters? I don’t have to plan ahead to make a reservation. I don’t have to gamble with what kind of audience I’m going to sit with–whether it’s polite old folks or rowdy teenagers or some moron thinks it’s already to bring their toddler to see Saw X because they want to see the movie but can’t find a sitter.

With streaming, I get the best of both worlds. I get high-budget stuff like Stranger Things and Nimona that isn’t restricted by the whims of studios (well, not those whims at least) and, if I’m patient, I get Oppenheimer and Blue Beetle in 3-4 months. I can see everything I want to anyway, so why get off my tuchus to go the theater? To see it on a bigger screen? Well, that’s just a matter of how close I can get. I got a HD widescreen on my laptop, so as long as I’m close enough that the screen is taking up most of the real estate of my eyeballs is good enough. Headphones give me full surround sound (plus it blocks out external stimuli).

Also, how are we defining “underperformance”? Are we comparing the cost of a movie to its gain? If so, that’s always going to be a losing game because costs are just getting sky higher. And they’re not getting cheaper. And studios are not being smart about their money. They’re paying exorbitant costs for upfront stuff like stars, IP, directors. Then there’s post-production costs like special effects that cost too much but don’t deliver (e.g. The Flash), reshoots based on focus groups, and marketing. We may have reached a terminal point where even a reasonable amount of audience cannot recoup the cost of a reasonable movie.

Last year, the top-grossing movie was Avatar 2. It got 2.3 billion dollars. Personally, I think that’s creative accounting so that it can “say” that it’s the top of the pops. But I have no evidence so we’ll just go with it. Top Gun: Maverick followed it at 1.4 billion. This year, only Barbie got 1.4 million.

In 2023, the sum total of the top ten grossing movies was 8 billion. Last year, it was 9.7 billion. 1.7 billion in difference between this year and last year. (And for the sake of completionism, 2021 was 7.1 billion, but that could be explained by coming off of COVID protocols. People were nervous to be in a small crowded space.) Furthermore, I’m not a statistician. Maybe this is just the variance from year to year, up and down a few billion. But it is evidence that people aren’t pumping as much money into the box office anymore.

What’s sad is that the theaters don’t need to suffer. Some are small businesses that depend on product delivered by another party. Like a fish and chip shop having to serve mackerel instead of cod or haddock. But I would not be surprised if we see them eventually die like Blockbuster and Kodak. Put obsolete by the changing ways we consume media. That’s just the way life works.

Eric Juneau is a software engineer and novelist on his lunch breaks. In 2016, his first novel, Merm-8, was published by eTreasures. He lives in, was born in, and refuses to leave, Minnesota. You can find him talking about movies, video games, and Disney princesses at http://www.ericjuneaubooks.com where he details his journey to become a capital A Author.

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