And now for something completely different.
While I normally focus on video games on this blog, they are not my only interest. I’m also an avid movie-goer. I’ve seen several hundred movies in theaters since I was a kid (I currently average about 15 trips to the cinema each year) and many hundreds more on home video and TV. All in all I’ve probably seen at least 1500 films, maybe more. I’m not really too picky about what kind of films I enjoy, either. But when there’s a movie that sufficiently interests me, I try to go see it in theaters. I just love the big-screen experience. The size of the screen. The big hi-fi sound systems. The smell of freshly-buttered popcorn. So, I decided to make a digression from video games and talk about the movies. Specifically, I wanted to take a look at the recent history and current state of the domestic (U.S. & Canada) box office, focusing on the the so-called “Blockbuster Era” of film, complete with all sorts of charts like the ones from my video game sales post.
(Note: All box office figures for movies released prior to 2019 are, unless otherwise specified, adjusted for ticket price inflation, using the 2019 price of $9.16 per ticket as the adjuster. For 2019 releases, box office actuals are used. More notes regarding data used in this article can be found in Appendix I.)
The Rise of the “Blockbuster Era” of Cinema
Modern Hollywood cinema has been dominated by the blockbuster: a hugely popular “event film” intended to appeal to a mass market and usually possessing a large budget. While the term “blockbuster” as it pertains to films dates back to the 1940s, the modern concept of the blockbuster film is commonly accepted to have originated with Jaws. That film marked the beginning of the “Blockbuster Era” of cinema and the transition away from the “New Hollywood” era (note that there is no sharp dividing line between the eras, and the early Blockbuster Era and late New Hollywood are considered to have overlapped).
Released on June 20 of 1975, Jaws was a massive hit, grossing $260 million in its original run (over $1.15 billion adjusted) and making Steven Spielberg a household name, as well as garnering John Williams his second Academy Award. An all-time classic film, it typified the kind of high-concept, effects-driven fare that would come to be the norm for big-budget popular films, as well as helping establish the summer as a popular release period for major films.
Just two years later in 1977, Star Wars was released. To say it was successful was an understatement. Released in May of that year, George Lucas, who had a big hit just four years earlier with American Grafitti, introduced the world to a new cinematic world that would quickly become perhaps the largest cultural touchstone of the past century and launch a massive media empire (pun possibly intended) that persists to this day. During its initial theatrical run, it would surpass Jaws by a comfortable margin, grossing $307 million domestically, or over $1.28 billion adjusted, making it the second most successful film in history, after Gone With the Wind.
Just six months after Star Wars was released, Steven Spielberg’s next big hit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another popular and classic sci-fi film that typified the blockbuster, was released. The massive success of Star Wars cemented the concept of the blockbuster, and both it and Close Encounters legitimized science fiction as a respectable genre of film after decades of being treated as hokey B-movie fare. The next year, Superman debuted and proved the viability of superhero movies, which would become increasingly popular over time. And Star Wars, Close Encounters, and Superman were, like Jaws, all scored by John Williams, his now-classic themes making him the most iconic name in film music of the Blockbuster Era.
Even though there were certainly major “event films” in the decades preceding these movies, the blockbuster became an increasingly important and popular part of Hollywood’s output starting in the latter half of the 1970s, and the Blockbuster Era continues to this day. While I don’t want to further digress into a wordy lesson on the history of American cinema (see the “Sources” section at the bottom of the page for relevant articles), I do want to look at and contextualize the data, and to put it in chart form when I can.
When looking at the list of all-time highest-grossing films adjusted for inflation, one would think that the the era preceding 1975 was producing boatloads of huge blockbuster films. Of the top 30 films on that list, thirteen were released prior to 1975, and of the eleven films with estimated admissions of over 100 million tickets (over $916 million in 2019 ticket prices), six are from before 1975, and only one of those (Star Wars: The Force Awakens) was from the 21st century. Additionally, overall attendance was higher from at least the 1930s to the late 1950s than at any point in the Blockbuster Era (though attendance did decline rapidly after the end of World War II; more on this later).
However, a closer look at the data shows that, prior to the Blockbuster Era, there were actually far fewer films that did well, with most having estimated admissions in their initial theatrical runs that would be considered nothing special today, this despite pre-1960 film attendance being higher than it is today. While some films regarded as all-time classics, including Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, The Ten Commandments, and the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, had exceptional box office performances in their initial runs, many others did not. For example, Casablanca did merely okay, Citizen Kane did not make a profit off of its modest haul, and The Wizard of Oz was an outright flop. As it turns out, not all classic films were huge hits at the box office in their day.
Overall, 59 films released before 1975 had an adjusted domestic gross of $300 million or more, though there may be other films that exceeded this threshold. Meanwhile, from 1975 to 2019 there have been 221 films to exceed an adjusted gross of $300 million. For films with an adjusted gross of over $500 million, the pre-1975 era had 29 films pass that milestone, while 50 have done so since 1975 so far. This is a significant increase in the number of major high-grossing films.
In addition to the move towards big-budget mass-market films, the increase in the number of high-grossing films is also likely due to the rise of the multiplex theater in the 1960s. Over the past several decades, the cinema landscape has been increasingly dominated by large theaters with ten or more screens (including larger “megaplexes” with upwards of 20 screens or more), as opposed to the single-screen theaters that used to be the norm. More screens means more showtimes and more movies that can be shown, giving more titles a chance to succeed.
Even as the Blockbuster Era has progressed, we have seen an ever-increasing number of major high-grossing films, as seen in the following chart (Note: Keep in mind that the number of films above any given milestone is for all films that made above that amount, e.g., the bar for the number of films that made above $200M includes films that made above $300M, $400M, & $500M):
As you can see, not every decade saw this increase evenly. For example, while the 1980s did produce fewer super-hits exceeding an adjusted gross of $400M than either the 70s or 90s, it did produce a larger number of films grossing over $200M than the 1970s. And as we can see, the rate of increase leveled off after the turn of the century, with the 2010s producing about the same number of blockbusters as the 2000s. Overall, in the past 50 years there have been seven times as many films produced that earned an adjusted gross of $300M or more than there were in all the decades prior to the 1970s. The 2010s alone produced more $300M+ films than all the decades prior to the 70s.
Of course, this also translates to larger combined grosses for all the top films of each decade:
While the 1970s do fare better for the Top 10 and Top 25 films thanks largely to mega-hits like Star Wars, Jaws, The Exorcist, and The Godfather, combined spending on Top 100 films below the Top 10 increased considerably, and as a result the 90s, 00s, and 10s fare better than the 70s overall for spending on top blockbusters. The 2010s have seen the highest amount of spending on major blockbusters ever, with the top 100 films of the decade having a combined adjusted gross of approximately $37.6 billion.
For a full list of top 100 highest-grossing films of each of the past five decades, and for the Blockbuster Era as a whole, see Appendix II.
The Opening Weekend: Bigger Debuts and Shorter Theatrical Runs
Over the course of the Blockbuster Era of cinema, we haven’t simply seen an increase in the number of high-grossing films. We’ve also seen movies get increasingly front-loaded, with an ever-greater emphasis on opening weekends. This has particularly been the case in the 21st century. While there were certainly movies in the 80s & 90s with solid debuts (the 90s more so than the 80s), there’s been a general trend towards movies making more and more money earlier and earlier. Even after adjusting for inflation, over the past four decades we kept seeing larger and larger debuts, which in turn make up a larger and larger portion of a film’s lifetime gross. Records for largest opening weekend have continued to be broken, as seen here in this chart showing each consecutive record-holder since 1979:
|Opening Weekend Gross (adjusted)||Opening Weekend as % of Lifetime Gross||Release Date|
|Star Trek: The Motion Picture||$42,811,600||14.50%||12/09/1979|
|Return of the Jedi||$65,843,400||9.00%||05/25/1983|
|Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom||$67,942,700||14.10%||05/23/1984|
|The Lost World: Jurassic Park||$141,594,000||31.50%||05/23/1997|
|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone||$143,737,600||28.50%||11/16/2001|
|Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest||$186,575,200||32.00%||07/07/2006|
|The Dark Knight||$198,786,600||29.70%||07/18/2008|
|Marvel’s The Avengers||$230,175,200||33.20%||05/04/2012|
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens||$256,802,300||26.40%||12/18/2015|
When it comes to opening weeks some older movies fare slightly better in comparison to more recent films, and I actually think full weeks are a better focus than just the weekends. After all, movie theaters are open seven days a week and people do go to see movies throughout the week, and sometimes weekends can have holidays and events that can positively or, in the case of Christmas Eve and Super Bowl Sunday, even negatively affect box office performance on a given day, which has a greater impact on a 3-day period than it does a 7-day period. But, as in the case for opening weekends, the general trend has been for opening weeks to get progressively larger in absolute terms and represent an increasingly large portion of a film’s lifetime gross. The norm for films released in the 2010s is for a movie to make over 40% of its lifetime gross (again, excluding re-releases) in just its first week, with that figure exceeding 50% for many films. Compare that to the 1980s, where it was rare for major films to make more than 30% of their lifetime gross in their first week, and even throughout the 90s it was rare for major movies to make more than 40% of their gross in the first week, with many films frequently making less than 30% of their lifetime gross in the first week.
As with the opening weekends, here’s each consecutive record holder for largest inflation-adjusted first week (Friday-Thursday) over the past 40 years:
|First Week Gross (adjusted)||First Week as % of Lifetime Gross||Release Date|
|Star Trek: The Motion Picture||$62,309,600||20.8%||12/09/1979|
|Return of the Jedi||$122,627,600||16.5%||05/25/1983|
|The Lost World: Jurassic Park||$209,265,000||45.8%||05/23/1997|
|Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone||$209,564,900||40.9%||11/16/2001|
|Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest||$274,128,500||46.3%||07/07/2006|
|Marvel’s The Avengers||$304,603,700||43.3%||05/04/2012|
|Star Wars: The Force Awakens||$411,522,700||41.6%||12/18/2015|
The list of largest opening weekends and weeks is dominated by 21st century films, even after adjusting for inflation. Of the Top 50 largest inflation-adjusted opening weeks as of the end of 2019, the only film from the 20th century is The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which currently sits at #39. Batman had the largest opening week of the 1980s, but said week is presently all the way down at #77, and is the only pre-1990s film to remain in the Top 100. Debuts considered record-setting 30 years ago are now considered modest by today’s standards, and even films with relatively unimpressive lifetime grosses can have debuts that would have been considered excellent by 20th century standards.
Looking past the openings, most major films today make well over 80% of their lifetime domestic box office gross (excluding re-releases) within their first four weeks in theaters. Meanwhile, in the 1980s most of the highest-grossing films of the decade made less than half of their lifetime grosses in the first four weeks.
While you do have the occasional film that isn’t as front-loaded as the current norm, they are still more front-loaded than just about any 20th century film. Avatar probably had the best overall “legs” of any major 21st century film, netting some solid returns even in its second month (about $188.3 million from Day 31 to Day 60, unadjusted) and not even dropping out of the Top 10 films of the week until four months after it debuted, but even it made 60% of its lifetime domestic gross after just four weeks. Compare that to E.T., which made only 26.2% of its domestic lifetime gross in its first four weeks and did not drop out of the Top 10 until after eight months, and stayed in theaters for well over a year during its initial run, still making enough money to occasionally find its way back into the Top 10. Even when you get a modern film like Avatar that has unusually strong legs, it simply doesn’t compare with many earlier films of the Blockbuster Era.
To put things in a visual perspective, here’s a timeline of the top ten highest-grossing films of each decade since 1980s, by how much of their lifetime gross was comprised by their first week and first four weeks in wide release, and organized in chronological order (for films that debuted in a limited release, only their time spent in wide release is counted; not all films are released on Fridays, so for those films the first seven-day period of wide release is counted instead of the first Friday-Thursday period):
None of this is to say that some popular films weren’t quite a bit front-loaded back in the 80s & 90s. Hit sequels to successful films in particular were often far more front-loaded than their originals, and frequently more front-loaded than what was the norm at the time of their release, with notable examples from the 80s & 90s including Aliens, Ghostbusters II, Back to the Future Part II & Part III, Die Hard 2, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Lethal Weapon 2, Crocodile Dundee II, Home Alone 2, the sequels to 1989’s Batman, the first two Indiana Jones sequels, and especially The Lost World: Jurassic Park. Several of these movies also had some of the largest opening weeks of their respective decades, including The Lost World, which as mentioned earlier had the biggest opening week of the 20th century. There were however a few popular non-sequel films that were relatively more front-loaded than what was the norm at the time, including Mission: Impossible, Interview with the Vampire, and, as seen in the above charts, the aforementioned Batman.
The net result of this increased front-loading is that films tend to have much shorter theatrical runs than they used to. Some films remained in theaters for a long time during their initial runs, with many, especially the most popular ones, remaining on the big screen for upwards of a year or more. Now most films, even the very successful ones, are done in theaters after only four to six months. When nearly everybody who wants to see a particular movie in theaters has done so within the first two months, there really is no such thing as “the long tail” anymore. Home video releases once took quite a number of months (sometimes upwards of a year) after the film’s original theatrical release to show up on store shelves, even after VCRs became ubiquitous in the early 90s, because quite a few films were still doing decently at theaters. Now you can buy most movies on Blu-ray a scant three or four months after they hit theaters as essentially every film is no longer making any appreciable money in theaters at that point. Even The Force Awakens, the highest-grossing film of the 21st century to date, made only about $20 million after its first 60 days, which amounts to only a little over 2% of its over $936 million lifetime gross (unadjusted).
It is uncertain why movies have become progressively more front-loaded over time. Possible explanations include:
- Movies opening on increasingly larger numbers of screens in their first weekend
- Marketing blitzes designed to build hype
- Cultural/societal factors, including fan anticipation for films from certain series or by certain directors, or a desire to see a movie before being spoiled by the internet/social media
In all likelihood, all of these factors (and possibly others) came into play. It is uncertain if films will continue to become more front-loaded over time, or if we are reaching “peak opening weekend,” but what is certain is that, for the foreseeable future, films will not have the longevity in theaters that they did last century, either in absolute terms or in ticket-selling power.
A Shifting Landscape: Changing Audience Tastes and the 21st Century Decline in Admissions
While the blockbuster film is here to stay and is still a model generating very strong revenues, many an observer has pointed out that overall admissions to cinemas have been on a decline since the early 2000s after a steady increase since the early 70s.
This is not the first time we’ve seen a downward trend in movie theater admissions. After a boom during the 1930s and on through World War II, we started to see a rapid decline in the post-war years. While the decline was fastest in the first 15 years after the war, attendance did continue to decline more slowly in the 1960s. In the 25 years from 1946 to 1971 (the latter being the year with the lowest recorded levels of attendance in the past 100 years), annual admissions had declined nearly 80%. And none of this is accounting for population growth. In per capita terms the decline in annual admissions was even larger, declining from over 26 tickets per person in 1946 to less than 4 tickets per person in 1971, a drop of over 85%.
Much has already been written by others about the post-WW2 decline in cinema—commonly cited reasons include competition from television, the effects of suburbanization, the effects of the U.S. v. Paramount case and the fall of the old studio system, and even the effects of the Red Scare/McCarthyism and the “Hollywood blacklist”—and since this article is focused on the Blockbuster Era, let’s take a closer look at theater attendance since the 1970s.
As mentioned, theater admissions bottomed out in 1971. Over the next three decades, we saw a long-term upward trend in admissions. Even on a per capita basis, admissions in the domestic market continued to improve. Overall, between 1975 and 2002 (the best year for attendance in the past 60 years) we saw admissions improve by roughly 52.5%. But since 2002 we’ve seen a reversal of fortune, with admissions in a general downward trend. Ticket sales in 2019 were 20.8% less than what they were in 2002 (though the rate of decline has slowed down since the early-mid 00s; admissions declined 15.3% from 2002 to 2010, but only 6.5% from 2010 to 2019).
As mentioned earlier, the number of major blockbusters and overall spending on such films has remained steady over the past 20 years and is still higher than where it was in the 70s, 80s, & 90s. So, if total attendance is declining even though attendance for major blockbusters is still strong, that obviously means the decline is not felt by movies as a whole and must be coming from less successful films. If we break down the list of movies released each year by various rankings of total grosses, we see that the further down the list of highest-grossing films of the year the more severe the decline is. The combined adjusted grosses of the top 30 or so movies of each year reflect somewhat stable admissions since the late 1990s, with a few relatively bad years here and there, while films below the top 30 have experienced rather drastic declines since 2006, as illustrated in the following charts (note: total combined grosses for each year are for lifetime grosses of in-year releases, not calendar grosses, so late-year releases count solely towards their year of release, not toward the next year):
As a result of this, the top 30 films of each year has since 2007 represented a growing share of the total grosses of all movies released in a given year, with the share being higher in the latter half of the 2010s than at any point in the past 40 years:
But even within the top 30 films, things aren’t equal:
The top 10 actually experienced the highest inflation-adjusted combined grosses of the Blockbuster Era during the latter half of the 2010s, with 2019 being the best year ever for the top 10, but this is following a slight downward trend from 2002 to 2014. The recent increase has also been fueled primarily by major franchises like the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as the return of Star Wars to the big screen. The combined grosses of films ranked #11 to #20 have remained relatively stable for a while now, though never quite getting back to where they were in the 1998-2002 period. And the combined grosses of films ranked #21 to #30 have experienced a continual decline, though not as severe as the decline seen for the combined grosses for all films below the top 30. So, the top 30 itself is increasingly dependent on the top 20 and especially the top 10 to keep from declining.
So, what is responsible for this change? The post-WW2 decline has been ascribed to a combination of various external factors, so could external factors likewise be the case in the 21st century decline?
The only major new form of entertainment since TV has been video games, and there doesn’t appear to be any connection between the rise of gaming and the decline in movie attendance. Economic factors are almost certainly a non-issue, and the past century has demonstrated that going to the movies is something that’s “recession-proof.” There’s been no big changes in society that can explain it. So maybe it’s something internal to the market.
What about movie ticket prices? After all, it is plausible, even probable, that audiences may be reducing trips to the movie theater if they feel that it’s getting too expensive for them. However, there is no consistent correlation between ticket prices and attendance. Sometimes there is a correlation, and in the 60s & 70s we saw attendance fall roughly in tandem with rising tickets and rise in tandem with declining ticket prices. Between 1962 and 1973 there was a roughly 78% increase in the inflation-adjusted price of a movie ticket (the largest increase in ticket prices in the post-WW2 era; prices from 1945 to 1962 rose a far more modest 18.6%). Meanwhile, attendance declined 20%. Then from 1973 to 1982 ticket prices fell 25%, while attendance rose 36.8%. This certainly seems to suggest that attendance is affected by ticket prices, and there’s limited evidence that demand for movie tickets is at least somewhat elastic in response to changes in price.
But after 1982 the relation between ticket prices and attendance starts to fall apart. While there were periods where attendance fell with rising ticket prices and vice versa, we also see others where attendance rose despite rising ticket prices and fall despite falling ticket prices. Attendance was at its highest point in the past 60 years in 2002, this despite ticket prices being about 13-15% higher than what they were during the 1993-1998 period when ticket prices were at their lowest point in the entirety of the Blockbuster Era. Average adjusted ticket prices in the 2010s range from about 50 cents to a dollar more than what they were in 2002, and that modest increase is almost certainly due to the increased prevalence of 3D and large-format screens, which normally cost at least several dollars more than a ticket for a standard screen. I still have a handful of old ticket stubs from my local Regal, and adjusted for inflation a ticket today for a standard screening is only marginally higher today than it was in 2005, and less than it was in 2011. Granted, that is just from one city, but it still serves to illustrate the effects of 3D and IMAX on average ticket prices.
Overall, ticket prices today are not considerably higher from where they were 20 years ago. Take away 3D and IMAX and focus just on standard screenings and they may not have increased appreciably at all. Even if we go back 40 years, average adjusted ticket prices have fluctuated in a relatively narrow range between about $7.40 and $9.50, with the 1980-2019 period having an inflation-adjusted average of about $8.50 per ticket. Given that times of economic recession (including the Great Depression) never had any measurable impact on admissions, I have my doubts that such modest fluctuations in ticket prices have a major impact on attendance. Combined with the poor correlation and inconsistent effects of changes in ticket prices on attendance over the past 40 years, the facts seem to suggest that ticket prices are not the cause of the post-2002 decline in attendance, or at the very least only have a modest effect.
Perhaps changes in how movies are distributed and consumed are a factor, so let’s look at advances in home video over the decades. DVD players, first released in 1997, were affordable to the average person by the turn of the century, and quickly became the most rapidly-adopted piece of consumer technology in history. In 2003 they were already in roughly half of all U.S. households, and by 2006 that number had exceeded 80%. DVD also offered vastly superior quality to VHS (probably the best picture you could get out of anything back in the standard-definition era), and, probably in large part due to this improved quality, the format was far more popular than VHS in terms of total amount of movies sold. Given the timing of its explosive growth and its quality (which may have resulted in some people simply waiting for a movie to be released on DVD), could DVD players have been a factor? It’s certainly possible. But what does the evidence say?
Even though the VHS market never reached the highs that the DVD market later reached, it was nevertheless incredibly popular in the 80s and especially the 90s. By 1988, 58% of U.S. households had a VCR, and by 1995 that number had risen to over 80%. Video rental shops like Blockbuster were hugely popular, and people also bought various movies on VHS, including the Star Wars trilogy, Titanic, Independence Day, Jurassic Park, and various animated Disney films in numbers that rivaled the most popular DVD releases. Despite all of this, the VCR had no negative effect on movie theaters, with attendance growing throughout the 80s & 90s. Given that we saw box office numbers improve throughout the heyday of VHS, I think it’s unlikely that DVD would have had an impact despite its quality, and the reason why leads me to more recent developments in home video.
That recent development is streaming video. The rise of digital distribution that was facilitated by the internet had a near-immediate impact on the music industry, with album sales on CD format peaking in 2000 and experiencing a rapid and massive long-term decline following the 2001 debut of iTunes. When it comes to movies, however, we run into a problem: the decline in attendance began when there was no real market for digital movies. Streaming services like Netflix and Hulu didn’t exist until 2007, and took several years to really take off. Digital copies of films weren’t really a thing until around 2008 or so, and still follow the same norms as physical home video releases, not becoming available for at least three months after the film debuts in theaters. So, digital distribution cannot have been a factor behind the initial decline. Furthermore, it appears to have had no additional effect on the box office. In fact, the decline in theater attendance has slowed somewhat since then. Between digital distribution having a lack of any visible effect on the box office and the 1980s-90s growth in the box office in the face of the then-rising popularity of VHS also seems to suggest that DVD, despite growing in popularity when theater attendance started to stall, was not a factor in said decline. This means that home video in general, be it VHS, DVD, or streaming, simply cannot account for the observed changes at the box office. That’s not to say that streaming video hasn’t had any effect at all. It definitely has (more on this later), but the decline started before it, and the rate of decline has slowed down somewhat since it, as shown here (due to the yearly data being quite noisy, I chose to go by 5-year periods):
If changes in the home video market or in the price of movie tickets aren’t the likely culprit behind the decline in movie attendance, then what is to blame?
If you look at the kind of movies that are popular, it starts to become clear that tastes in film have changed over time. There are still perennial favorites, including big-budget action-adventure spectacles, long-established franchises with wide appeal, family films (especially of the animated variety), and even the occasional horror film. Superhero movies are a subset of the action-adventure genre that have exploded in popularity since the turn of the century, especially with the wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, one of the most ambitious film series in history. However, other genres haven’t fared as well.
The traditional live-action comedy has started to wane since the latter half of the 2000s. Of the top 100 films of the 2010s, only four films—The Hangover Part II, Ted, and (arguably) Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle and its 2019 sequel—were comedies in any traditional sense. While there are many films with strong comedic elements, including many of the aforementioned superhero films (Guardians of the Galaxy and Deadpool especially), those films are arguably action-adventure films first and comedies second. Meanwhile, back in the 70s, 80s, 90s, and first half of the 00s, comedies were ubiquitous and popular. Directors like Mel Brooks and actors like Bill Murray, Jim Carrey, Eddie Murphy, Ben Stiller, and Mike Myers gave us some of the most successful films of those decades. Comedies were once frequently a big part of the top ten films of any given year. Now it’s very rare to see a comedy film do well at the box office.
Drama films also have suffered at the box office. Back in the 1970s, films like The Godfather, Rocky, Kramer vs. Kramer, and Love Story were smash hits. In the 1980s, films like An Officer and a Gentleman, Rain Man, On Golden Pond, and Terms of Endearment were among the most successful movies of their decade. In the 1990s you saw movies like Titanic, Forrest Gump, Dances With Wolves, Apollo 13, and A Few Good Men perform very well. Even in the 2000s you had films like The Passion of the Christ, Gladiator, Cast Away, A Beautiful Mind, and The Blind Side pull in strong revenues, though most of those were in the first half of the decade. Meanwhile, in the 2010s drama films have not seen much success. Like comedies, drama films are still being made, but they aren’t attracting the crowds they used to. You occasionally get a dramatic film that does decently, but rarely anything that even comes close to lighting up the box office like some dramas did in decades past. The closest examples we have of hugely successful dramas in the 2010s are the war drama film American Sniper and 2019’s Joker, and they are ranked only #34 and #55 among the top films of the decade, respectively. Joker, a dark, R-rated Scorsese-esque character study at its heart, is an interesting case, as it arguably only succeeded because it was centered on one of the most famous fictional villains ever at a time when films based on comic books are booming. It wasn’t a “comic book movie” in the sense of the action-packed fare typified by the MCU and DCEU, but it was one by virtue of its source material. The only other dramas of the 2010s to have an adjusted gross of over $200 million were Lincoln, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the remake of A Star is Born, and all three did not pass that milestone by much, and they all fell short of entering the top 100 films of the decade.
Comedy and drama films do have one thing in common: they are usually not spectacles heavy on the special effects and action. And it’s those spectacles that are taking up an ever-larger share of spending at the box office. If you look at the top thirty films of the 2010s, four of them are Star Wars films, ten were live-action superhero films (eight of them being from the MCU), two were from the Jurassic Park series, and nine were animated family films. The remaining five films were two Hunger Games films, the live-action Beauty and the Beast remake, the third live-action Transformers film (yes, really), and the final Harry Potter film. Compare that to the 70s, 80s, 90s, and even the 00s to a lesser extent, which all had a far more diverse selection of films in their respective top thirty. When modern audiences spend money on a movie ticket (and gas to go to the theater, and concessions if they’re hungry) and sit through a 2+ hour film (plus 15 minutes of trailers), they increasingly want it to be an experience befitting the Big Screen.
But the demand for comedies and dramas still exists. It’s just that consumption of those genres seems to have moved elsewhere, namely to the small screen. In a smaller-scale reflection of its impact on movie-going in the years following World War II, television of all things may be largely responsible for this shift. The 2000s saw the dawn of a “Golden Age of Television” (also referred to as “Peak TV”), where quality television shows, particularly on cable, have proliferated greatly. It is here where we see comedic and dramatic fare thrive, much of it pushing boundaries when it comes to what is considered acceptable for television (cable doesn’t have to adhere to the FCC’s relatively strict content guidelines, after all). Streaming video platforms like Netflix have also been a venue where comedic and dramatic films have done well, and this is where streaming video may have had an impact. Multiple commentators have implicated TV and streaming video as the twin culprits that have stolen the audiences for comedies and dramas away from the big screen. With TV, the timing certainly fits, as it was after the turn of the century where original programming on cable TV really started to take off (back in the 80s & 90s most major cable networks were running mostly syndicated series, with the Big Four broadcast networks being where most new original content found its home).
Comedies and dramas work just as well on the small screen as they do the big screen, and it’s entirely possible that audiences are increasingly likely to skip such films at the cinema since there’s plenty of quality stuff to watch at home that scratches the itch for comedy and drama. And audiences aren’t simply waiting for feature-length comedies and dramas to come to home video, either, considering that recent films in those genres have struggled on home video as well. If people are waiting to see those movies, they wait to see them when they’re available for streaming or are aired on TV.
So, it’s likely that the decline in the box office is simply due to changes in what audiences want out of the movie theater experience, and out of movies in general, combined with competition from TV and, later on, streaming video. They are increasingly far less likely to go to the theater to watch movies that they feel don’t benefit from the big screen, and they are increasingly congregating around a shrinking pool of films that have lots of action, special effects, and/or pretty animation, and even then they are being increasingly judicious about which of those spectacles they’re willing to see. It is an inversion of the “Classical” era of film (particularly in the 1930s and 40s when “talkies” were still relatively new) where film attendance was considerably higher in absolute and especially per capita terms than it has been for the past sixty years, yet far fewer major high-grossing films were produced. Back then, audiences spread their money out among a much wider variety of films, with only a few films becoming huge smash hits at the box office.
While things aren’t yet “feast or famine” at the domestic box office, films outside the top twenty or so big “tent-pole” releases have been on the decline. Essentially, we’re seeing the ultimate culmination of the Blockbuster Era. In the latter half of the 70s, Jaws and Star Wars would define what a blockbuster was in the modern sense, and now effects-driven movies that have followed in their wake truly dominate the box office.
What does this mean for the future? It’s likely that, at least in the near term, film attendance will continue to slowly decline (though attendance is still so high, with well over a billion tickets sold every year, that the movie theater is far from endangered). The top twenty films of each year will likely continue to represent an ever-larger share of the total gross of all films each year. But even the Top 20 could run into trouble. 2020 was already looking to be a relatively slow start to this new decade, with perhaps the only films capable of being huge blockbusters being Black Widow, Wonder Woman 1984, Top Gun: Maverick, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, and No Time to Die, and even those likely won’t be monster hits. Further complicating things is the COVID-19 pandemic, which as of the publication of this article has caused most theaters to close and numerous films to have their releases delayed to the summer or later (Fast & Furious 9 and Ghostbusters: Afterlife were notable planned 2020 releases pushed all the way back to 2021). Even before the pandemic, it was looking to be the first year since 2014 where there wasn’t at least one film grossing at least $500 million domestic, and with no Avengers or Star Wars film on the slate it was already likely to be the weakest year for the Top 10 films since that year.
Even the relative stability of the films taking up ranks #11 to #20 started to show a big crack in 2019, indicating potential further concentration of ticket sales into just the top ten films of the year. The increased dependence on a relative handful of blockbuster films has definite risks, and while it has paid off, with hugely popular films still being released, it could be a problem over time, particularly if certain key franchises with consistently strong performances start to wane. If you look at the top ten films of the 2010s that were not part of the Star Wars or MCU franchise, they had a combined adjusted gross of about 13% less than that of the top ten films of the 2000s (only one of those—Revenge of the Sith—was a Star Wars movie, which placed only #8 for the decade; Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk, the only MCU films from the 2000s, placed #28 and #187 for the decade, respectively).
The 2010s, especially the latter half of the decade, relied heavily on the aforementioned Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universe franchises to produce the largest films of each year, yet those series have both reached crossroads of sorts. In 2019, both definitively completed their major overarching story arcs that have defined the series since their inceptions. New Star Wars films are planned, but it’s unknown what kind of stories they will tell and if they’ll generate the same interest the Skywalker Saga did. Meanwhile, we already know the plans for the near future of the MCU, with Phase Four beginning in 2020 and no end in sight for the still-popular series. However, it’s unlikely that we’ll see another Avengers-scale film anytime soon, and the series has lost most of its original group of main heroes after the events of Avengers: Endgame. With Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, we will likely see films that serve to reboot the X-Men and Fantastic Four series, integrating their characters into the MCU (fingers crossed for Ryan Reynolds’ rendition of Deadpool being put into the MCU in some hilarious fourth-wall breaking manner). But as long as Disney continues to produce films in both series that are widely enjoyed by general audiences, I see them continuing to be major box office draws, though how major remains to be seen.
Disney also has their usual output of animated family films, including the output of Pixar, which are routinely very successful. They may also be able to rely on live-action remakes of their older animated films, most of which have done quite well. Finally, they can draw upon other non-Marvel IPs they gained when they purchased 20th Century Fox, including Avatar, the second highest-grossing film of the 21st century, which has multiple sequels on the way.
Outside of Disney, there are fewer reliable franchises. Universal has the Jurassic Park and Fast & Furious series (though how long they can continue to produce hits in those series remains to be seen), as well as the animated films produced by their subsidiaries DreamWorks and Illumination. Sony still retains film rights for Spider-Man, and they may consider yet another reboot of the lucrative franchise if and when their current partnership with Disney ends (and assuming it doesn’t end with Disney successfully negotiating with Sony to buy back the few Marvel characters Sony still has film rights for). Warner Bros. has had generally good success with films based on DC Comics, despite a few missteps. And these and other studios can still produce adaptations of literature or remake older films, which sometimes results in very popular films (e.g., the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Hunger Games series).
Original live-action films are going to be a harder sell than anything based on an established property. Of the top 100 highest-grossing films of the 2010s, only three—Inception, Gravity, and Ted—were live-action non-sequel films with original screenplays. Everything else was a sequel, a remake, an adaption of a comic book or novel, or otherwise part of some established IP, or was an animated family film. Unless audience tastes change in the future, the industry will continue to be reliant on established franchises, which raises further questions about long-term sustainability.
Looking further into the future, it’s anyone’s guess. Theater attendance declined sharply after World War II, but then recovered during the latter half of the 1970s on through to the early 2000s. So, there’s no reason to assume that the current decline must necessarily continue indefinitely. American cinema has remained strong despite its ups and downs, and in the future perhaps changes in both audience tastes and approaches to movie-making could reverse the current decline. But there are also a lot of unknowns. For example, it remains to be seen what kind of long-term impacts, if any, the COVID-19 pandemic will have on movie theaters. But one thing is for certain: A lot of people will continue to enjoy a night at the movies for quite some time to come.
Box Office Mojo (archived copy of the old site)
Box Office Mojo (current site; limited data compared to old site)
National Association of Theatre Owners
Frank Manchel, Film Study: An Analytical Bibliography, Volume 4, p. 2302
Variety, “3D Box Office Hits Lowest Levels in Eight Years”
Cinema of the United States (“History” section) at Wikipedia
History of Hollywood at TV Tropes (less formal/academic than the Wikipedia article, but still informative)
Golden Age of Television at Wikipedia