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Why revenues are down at the movie box office

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Updated: January 30, 2012 10:33AM

Box-office revenue “lagged far behind 2010,” an article by the AP’s David Germain reports. Partly that was because the year lacked an “Avatar.” Partly because a solid summer slate fell off in the fall. Germain talks to several Hollywood insiders who try to explain why 2011 had “the smallest movie audience since 1995.” I have some theories of my own, fueled by what people tell me:

1. Absence of must-see movies: When moviegoers hear about “Avatar” or “The Dark Knight,” they blast off from home base and land in a theater seat as quickly as they can.

2. High ticket prices: People have always made that complaint, but historically the movies have been cheap compared with concerts, major league sports and restaurants. Not so much any longer. No matter what your opinion of 3-D, the charm of paying a hefty surcharge has worn off for the hypothetical family of four.

3. The theater experience: Moviegoers over 30 are weary of noisy fanboys and girls. The annoyance of talkers has been joined by the plague of cell-phone users, whose bright screens are a distraction. Worse, some texting addicts get mad when told they can’t use their cell phones. Reportedly opening: A theater that will allow and even bless cell phone usage, although that may be an apocryphal story.

4. Refreshment prices: It’s an open secret that the actual cost of soft drinks and popcorn is very low. To justify their inflated prices, theaters serve portions that are grotesquely oversized and no longer offer what used to be a “small popcorn.” Today’s bucket of popcorn would feed a thoroughbred.

5. Competition from other forms of delivery: Movies streaming over the Internet are no longer a sci-fi fantasy. TV screens are growing larger and cheaper. Consumers are finding devices that easily play digital movies through TV sets. Netflix alone reportedly accounts for 30 percent of all Internet traffic in the evening. That represents millions of moviegoers. They’re simply not in a theater.

This could be seen as an argument about why newspapers and their readers need movie critics now more than ever; the number of choices can be baffling.

6. Lack of choice: Box-office tracking shows that the bright spot in 2011 was the performance of indie, foreign or documentary films. On many weekends, one or more of those titles will capture first place in per-screen-average receipts. Yet most moviegoers outside large urban centers can’t find those titles in their local gigantiplex. Instead, all the shopping center compounds seem to be showing the same few overhyped disappointments. Those films open with big ad campaigns, play a few weeks and disappear.

The myth that small-market moviegoers don’t like “art movies” is undercut by Netflix’s viewing results; its third most popular movie on Dec. 28 was “Certified Copy,” by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. You’ve heard of him? In fourth place, French director Alain Corneau’s “Love Crime.” In fifth, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” but the original, subtitled, Swedish version.

The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: Thriving theaters police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can’t depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.

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