Summer Movies 2012: 100 Million Fewer Tickets Sold Compared to 10 Years Ago

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Last summer’s blockbuster movie season was considered a bust, with the fewest movie tickets sold at theaters since 1997. Despite recent hits such as “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” by the time Labor Day rolls around, the summer of 2012 will fare even worse.

Citing data from the research firms Exhibitor Relations and Hollywood.com, USA Today reports that, once the Labor Day weekend is over, an estimated 529 million movie tickets will have sold in the U.S. during the summer 2012 movie season—from Friday of Memorial Day weekend up until Monday, September 3. For the sake of comparison, last summer was deemed a poor year for movies because only 543 million movie tickets were sold.

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Both summers, for that matter, look dismal compared to a decade ago, when roughly 629 million tickets were sold during the season that lived up to its blockbuster billing:

“That’s 100 million fewer tickets,” says [Exhibitor Relation’s Jeff] Bock, who points out that rising ticket prices mask attendance drops. “That’s a really troubling number for the industry if you look at it that way, which reflects how the movie business is really doing.”

For last year as a whole, movie ticket revenues dipped by 4.5%. That doesn’t sound all that bad. But as Bock mentioned, part of the reason revenues haven’t dropped further is that ticket prices have gotten more expensive. In 2011, 1.3 billion movie tickets were sold, the lowest total since 1995.

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While some experts say that “rising ticket prices mask attendance drops,” there’s also an argument to be made that attendance drops have come directly as a result of rising ticket prices. One reason fewer people are going to the movies is simply because they don’t want to pay $8, $12, perhaps even $15 to see a mediocre film, even if it is being shown in annoying, or rather “mind-blowing,” 3-D. Nonetheless, despite declining attendance, and the obvious cause-effect in which raising prices will decrease attendance further, plenty of analysts have suggested that jacking up ticket prices is the solution for the struggling movie business.

Presumably, making better movies—ones that might actually justify the hefty price of admission—could also be a good strategy. Thanks to the rise of social media and Internet chatter, would-be moviegoers can get clued in immediately as to whether a new movie is a stinker. “I like that audiences can’t be fooled the way they once were,” Paul Dergarabedian, of Hollywood.com, told USA Today. “It forces the industry to come up with good stories. Hollywood can’t rely on pretty faces anymore.”

Also, because ticket prices weren’t as expensive in the past, viewers had less to worry about when deciding if a movie was worth the price of admission. Thanks to rising ticket prices, the stakes have been raised. A family has to consider that taking in a bad movie is a waste not only of a couple hours’ time, but also a waste of maybe $75 or $100 once pricey theater snacks are factored in.

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No matter the somewhat lackluster summer season, the movie business must feel like it’s moving in the right direction. For 2012 thus far, revenues and attendance are both up slightly compared to the same period last year. Bear in mind that 2011 was one of the worst years for movie attendance in quite some time.

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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