Two Thumbs Down For Coverage of the Movie Industry

Members of the media have greatly exaggerated rumors of Hollywood's impending demise.

Hollywood had an awful year in 2005 — and it’s going to get worse. The studios are delivering one dud after another. And with everyone having so much fun trying to score dates on the Internet, people just don’t want to go to movies anymore.

This much we know, thanks to the journalists who have been filing a steady stream of dramatic stories portraying a movie industry in desperate straits. But are we getting the full picture? Let’s take a look.

“Tarnished year for silver screen,” read a typical headline over a CNNMoney story reporting on Monday that 2005 marked “the second year in a row that [movie] attendance declined on an annual basis.” Moreover, even Peter Jackson’s much-heralded “King Kong” remake “has not lived up to lofty expectations, leading some to wonder what, if anything, can get back people to the theaters.”

CNN went on to provide a list of possible reasons for the box office woes, including “overpriced tubs of popcorn,” moviegoers “more interested in staying home and watching DVDs that they rented from Netflix,” and consumers who “are just bored with the derivative fare that Hollywood has to offer.” After mulling over possible answers to these probing questions, the folks at CNN helpfully decided that, eh, “It’s probably a combination of all these factors.”

Similarly, a long Associated Press story in mid-December highlighted “the biggest decline in movie attendance in 20 years.” The AP allowed that, while this was the third straight year of decreasing box-office sales, “those declines came amid a broader upswing in movie attendance since the mid-1980s.” Still, the movie industry should worry, since the sales slump stretched “to a modern record of 19 weekends in a row” at one point. And, the AP argues, if it weren’t for box office boffo “The Passion of the Christ,” the slump might actually have started in 2004, providing “a clearer signal that audiences could be growing tired of movie theaters for good.”

So, we already know that newspapers are facing extinction. Are movies going to suffer the same gory fate? Well, fortunately, no. And it’s a good thing that we still have the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times, because two stories in those papers help put the movie industry’s supposed woes into perspective.

“Don’t assume a tragic ending for Hollywood,” reads the subhed of a story in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times. The paper goes on to blow a hole in the “disproportionate amount of attention” each weekend’s box-office results are given in easily reported and digested stories.

In fact, the Times notes, “domestic box-office sales are a shallow indicator of how well the movie business is doing. Since the early 1990s, U.S. receipts have been eclipsed by the box office overseas. Movies that appear to be duds in the U.S. can — and often do — turn into hits in foreign markets.” Moreover, while total box-office receipts are down about 5 percent, “that doesn’t mean the movie industry is about to derail.” On the contrary, “Movie studios make more money selling DVDs than they do releasing films theatrically.”

The Times also points out that the downturn is not industry-wide. Warner Bros., for example, is celebrating a record year. It is interesting to note, as the Times does, that “A bigger problem for studios than slowing theater attendance is a slowdown in the growth of DVD sales — a plateau that arrived sooner than expected.”

In New York, the other Times delivered a more graphic-heavy effort several Sundays ago. “Scanning the weekly box-office reports has been a mighty sobering experience in 2005,” the paper told us. “But a closer look at the movie business, in all its global reach and various outlets, tells a different story.” Taking into account the home-video market and a booming international market, “the money flowing into the coffers of movie studios is greater than ever.”

All of which goes to show that the old “weekend box-office numbers” paradigm doesn’t quite cut it anymore. Those numbers are still the most visible week-to-week indicators of a movie’s popularity. But a statistic without a full story is no better than a Harry without a Sally, or a Cheech without a Chong.

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Edward B. Colby was a writer at CJR Daily.