Los Angeles — Americans' love affair with movies is far from over. Yet like many relationships, it seems to be suffering from a case of familiarity breeds contempt.
Summer 2005 was the worst since 1997 for movie attendance, which dropped sharply and rattled the complacency of studios.
For the 18 weeks from early May through Labor Day, domestic movie grosses are expected to total $3.6 billion, down 9 percent from summer revenues of $3.96 billion last year, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations. Attendance figures are even bleaker. Factoring in higher admission prices, the number of movie tickets sold should come in around 562.5 million, down 12 percent from summer 2004.
What went wrong?
"What didn't go wrong? That's the question," said Paul Dergarabedian, Exhibitor Relations president. "This was a summer that really could be characterized as under a cloud from the beginning. Usually, the first weekend in May, you have a big film that kind of kicks off the summer. It didn't happen that way this time, and that was sort of an indicator of things to come."
Some movies did score big, but the overall downturn lingered and then worsened, prompting gloom-and-doom predictions that audiences were growing tired of rising ticket prices, concession stand costs, pre-show advertising and other movie theater hassles.
With so many other entertainment choices - video games, limitless TV programming, home-theater setups - audiences may be edging away from moviehouses.
In an Associated Press-AOL News poll in June, nearly three-fourths of adults said they would prefer to stay home and watch movies on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view rather than traipse to a theater. Almost half said they think movies are getting worse.
For years, Hollywood has thrived with an if-you-film-it-they-will-come mentality, relying on an assembly line formula of explosive action films, lowbrow comedy and dippy romance.
That approach failed in summer 2005, which had far more flops than usual, among them the action thrillers "Stealth" and "The Island," the comedies "The Honeymooners," "The Bad News Bears" and "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," and the historical epic "Kingdom of Heaven."
Ron Howard reteamed with his "A Beautiful Mind" star Russell Crowe for the class-act of summer. But "Cinderella Man," the uplifting story of Depression-era boxer Jim Braddock, was a box office lightweight despite good reviews.
Summer 2005 did produce its share of big hits, led by "Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith" at almost $380 million. Films at or near the $200 million mark included "War of the Worlds," "Batman Begins," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Wedding Crashers" and "Madagascar."
There also were a few independent hits, such as the ensemble drama "Crash" and the surprise documentary smash "March of the Penguins."
It's unclear whether such breakout hits or the success of character-driven comedies such as "Wedding Crashers" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" will prompt studio executives to seek fresh ideas, or whether they will fall back on the safe old summer formulas.
"In an ideal world, people would say 'OK, we have to think more creatively, we have to think outside the box and come up with new and different things,"' said Steven Friedlander, head of distribution for Warner Independent Pictures, which released "March of the Penguins."
"But I'm afraid what's going to happen is, we're all going to sit in a room and say 'We need more penguin movies."' So I don't really know what lessons we're going to take out of all this."