Thumbs Down: 2011 Saw Least Movie Tickets Sold Since 1995

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Reviews aside, it’s been a bad year at the movies. By the time 2011 comes to an end, ticket revenues are expected to be down 4.5% compared to 2010. This is despite today’s higher ticket prices: The average movie admission crossed the $8 mark for the first time ever in 2011.

U.S. consumers are known for embracing dumb movies, even when the economy’s in rough shape. But each year, and in 2011 especially, more and more people seem to give the modern-day movie-going experience a thumbs down review.

By last spring, it was clear that film goers were turned off by 3-D movies, or at least by the added cost of 3-D for mediocre films like “The Smurfs” and the latest “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Normally blockbuster season, the summer of 2011 saw the least movie tickets sold since 1997.

(LIST: Top 10 Worst Movies of 2011)

The year as a whole has been a downer for the industry. Just before Christmas, the Associated Press reported that movie ticket sales in the U.S. for 2011 were estimated to come in at under 1.3 billion. That would be the smallest figure since 1995, when 1.26 billion tickets were sold. The number of people going to the movies has been on a steady decline since 2002.

The New York Times, meanwhile, points out that movie ticket revenues have dropped 4.5% in 2011, despite the proliferation of higher ticket prices, especially those due to 3-D films, which cost $3 to $5 more per ticket.

The movie industry’s response to declining ticket sales seems to be to just keep charging more per ticket, with the help of 3-D, IMAX, and other special formats meant to transform a film into an “experience” that’ll somehow justify the $20 admission. Such moves will ensure a higher average price per ticket. But it also may ensure that, the occasional must-see blockbuster aside, fewer people will be inclined to pay through the nose to go to the movies.

(LIST: Top 10 Best Movies of 2011)

By looking at the scenario one way, it seems as if higher ticket prices have helped the movie industry avoid what could have been an even worse year. But as much as the higher ticket price can be viewed as the savior of the movie business, it also appears to be one of the main reasons for the failure to attract more customers.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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