2011 Summer Movie Attendance Was The Lowest Since 1997

With Labor Day behind us and school back in session, summer in the US is officially over, at least from a cultural perspective. So it's time to tally the box-office receipts from what has been the biggest movie season over the past thirty years.

The good news? Revenue is up from last year. The bad news: revenue is up by less than one percent. More troubling: after taking into account that a good portion of the overall revenue came from inflated 3D prices, analysts reveal that attendance was actually down this year. about 543 million tickets were sold this summer, which is the lowest number since 1997's famous summer of 540 million tickets. (OK, perhaps not so famous.) But wait, there's more! 2011 is the fourth consecutive year f dwindling summer movie attendance.

The New York Times presents the numbers, saying that second-quarter ticket sales (which accommodate that earlier summer season push we've talked about a few times) were down a massive 20% from last year, and overall sales are down 4%. The Times doesn't have much in-depth analysis, but points to a few key facts:

1. Three huge franchises (Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean and Harry Potter) were responsible for the summer's biggest box-office takes, with each film in those franchises earning more than a billion dollars globally. Another, newer franchise, The Hangover, earned its stripes. Or bought them. 'Earned' is the wrong word.

2. A film like the fourth Pirates aside, star power isn't enough to drive people to shitty movies. Viz: Green Lantern, Larry Crowne, Mr. Popper's Penguins, Cowboys & Aliens and Zookeeper.

3. Movies with good word of mouth did well: Bridesmaids, X-Men: First Class, Thor, Captain America, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Perhaps that should be amended to 'better than expected word of mouth,' as this summer could have been the year of Films that Exceeded Diminished Expectations. Bad Teacher and Horrible Bosses performed well, too.

The Times does not mention one of the biggest box-office anomalies of 2011: Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris, a 'strong word of mouth' movie if ever there was one, which became a runaway success on its own small scale. The film has earned $50m domestic and just shy of $100m worldwide. Not a patch on Harry Potter, but still a massive success for Woody, and a refutation for the argument that older audiences won't go out to the theater. They just won't go see Cowboys & Aliens.

Fox head Tom Rothman, of all people, says,

The lesson for us is that different and original is always hard and always a risk but has great upside. While both of those films had genetic material in common with their original franchises, both were very, very original pieces.

Two points to take away. One is obvious, the other perhaps not as much so. First, with the exception of shitty movies that have years of built-in franchise marketing, such as Transformers: Dark of the Moon, people might finally have too many other entertainment options to bother with bad movies. The continued erosion of the theater experience didn't hurt, either. Why see a bad movie in a crappy environment? If I get a root canal, at least my mouth feels better afterward.

The other fact, which is contingent upon our disinterest in shitty movies, is the diminished status of the US as a prime movie marketplace. China and Russia are becoming ticket-purchasing powerhouses. (China is still quite restrictive when it comes to giving prime berths to foreign films, which is why we're seeing more US-Chinese co-productions.) In other words: people in other countries can still, somehow, be conned into seeing Green Lantern. Give it a year or two, and the rest of the world will