Everyone loves a crash-and-burn story, and the “box office slump” of 2005 has been the entertainment media’s favorite train wreck, along with the Brad and Jennifer breakup. This past summer, ticket sales were reportedly off by about 12 percent from last year. Blame has fallen on an assortment of bugaboos: bad movies, high ticket prices, the rise of DVDs. One ultra-conservative even offered the explanation in the L.A. Times that “Hollywood’s ruling liberal elites keep going out of their way to offend half their audience.” But a few industry watchers say the doomsday scenario is overblown and irresponsible (anomalous hits The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11 threw 2004 out of whack), or a ploy by crabby studios to push stiffer constraints on piracy and ensure their global domination.
There are a million ways to crunch the numbers (this year’s top-grossing movies outperformed last year’s, etc.), but the year isn’t over yet. The best argument so far against the box office “slump” may be that 2005’s most potentially lucrative films have yet to arrive: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Peter Jackson’s King Kong, and Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—the latter of which, with its Christian subtext, could satisfy red staters fed up with George Lucas’s anti-imperialism.
If audiences are tired of action-adventure blockbusters (Kingdom of Heaven, Stealth, and The Island all tanked), the prestige pictures of autumn could get filmgoers back in theaters. Miramax has spent the last several months dumping back-catalog pictures on the cheap (Twin Sisters, Deep Blue, The Warrior, The Great Raid), but when Miramax chiefs the Weinstein brothers officially jump ship from the mini-studio on September 30, they’ll begin releasing films in earnest for their new company, including Chen Kaige’s martial arts fantasy epic The Promise and Stephen Frears’s 1940s-set British musical comedy Mrs. Henderson Presents. And what with summer crossover hits Crash, March of the Penguins, Ladies in Lavender, Broken Flowers, and The Aristocrats, film executives in the specialized business aren’t worried.
“God forbid we should add to the pile of ink about the box office slump,” says Focus Features’ James Schamus. “The sample size is way too low. We have no idea what this means in terms of the long term. If this extends into spring of next year, we’ll be having a very different conversation, but right now, it’s just a bunch of movies that haven’t worked.”