The long Memorial Day weekend traditionally marks the beginning of the American summer movie season, so for Hollywood studios this past weekend’s the dismal ticket sales are clear cause for concern. Dollarwise, it was the worst Memorial Day weekend at the box office in nine years; in terms of actual bodies in seats, it was the worst in fifteen years. (Analysis: Box Office Mojo, Box Office Guru.)
Hollywood’s two-punch strategy, targeting male audiences with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time and female viewers with Sex and the City 2, failed on both fronts as neither demographic showed much interest. By default, the weekend went to the week-old Shrek Forever After, though the DreamWorks fourquel is losing steam fast compared to its predecessors, even the lame Shrek the Third.
Rounding out the top five are Iron Man 2, the summer’s one certified hit, and Robin Hood, a disappointment if not quite a dud. Even Iron Man probably won’t quite match the success of the original.
Meanwhile, what’s on the horizon? A few sure things, certainly. Toy Story 3 and the latest Twilight flick will rock the box office. 1980s nostalgia might power The A-Team and the Jackie Chan–Jaden Smith Karate Kid remake to success.
After that, who knows? Will family audiences turn out in droves for Marmaduke, Despicable Me or a Cats & Dogs sequel? (It’s been ten years since Cats & Dogs. Half the kids who saw it in theaters are watching R-rated movies now.) Will action fans find anything to connect with in Night and Day or Salt? Will Jonah Hex connect with anyone but dyed-in-the-wool comic-book fans? Does anyone really want another Predator flick? Really?
The movie I’m most excited to see is Christopher Nolan’s Inception, but who knows how it will do at the box office?
So far, audiences aren’t thrilled with what moviemakers are serving ... and when moviegoers vote with ticket sales, or lack thereof, those votes will be counted—and agonized over.
What lessons Hollywood may from recent box-office results is another matter. Some possible lessons (I’m not saying those are the lessons I want Hollywood to draw):
- 3D is key. The failure of the old-school 2D Prince of Persia further cements the lesson of Avatar, Alice in Wonderland, How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans: If you want a blockbuster, do it in 3D. Maybe if you have a hit film like Iron Man you can get away with a 2D sequel, but who knows how much bigger Iron Man 2 might have been in 3D?
- On the other hand, higher ticket prices don’t necessarily mean more money. The flip side of 3D is: You’d better have something new to offer. Viewers like what they know, but 3D prices for “been there, done that” material isn’t necessarily a winning combination. Is Shrek Forever After falling behind Shrek the Third in spite of higher ticket prices, or because of them?
- Mix it up, genre-wise. One genre is as passé as two dimensions. What do Twilight and Pirates of the Caribbean have that Sex and the City 2 and Prince of Persia don’t? A horror-thriller angle—they’re not just a chick flick and an action flick. Likewise, How to Train Your Dragon combines Vikings and dragons. Alice in Wonderland combines fairy tale and mythic heroism. Blending genres doesn’t necessarily make a movie better, but it may seem fresher.
- Star power counts. Johnny Depp turned on a dime from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise to power the mediocre Alice in Wonderland to stratospheric box-office success. Meanwhile, Pirates mega-producer Jerry Bruckheimer flopped with Prince of Persia, starring Jake Gyllenhaal. Advantage: Depp.
Nostalgia works too. If Clash of the Titans’ success carries over to The Karate Kid and The A-Team, watch out. Can it really be that no one has made a Fall Guy feature film? What about a Princess Bride sequel?