Which Came First: the Slow-Moving Plot or the Slow Sales?

Ad Age Investigates Cause Behind This Summer's Box-Office Slump

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Sometimes you go fishing and pull in a massive marlin. Sometimes you get a blue gill not worth pan-frying. When dealing with data, the lack of story can be a story in itself. With that said, we'll present the findings of our investigation into the question, "If summer movie box office is down this year, is it the fault of the marketing, or could it be that the movies just suck?"

First off, let's start with the theory that box office is down for summer movies. We defined our "summer blockbuster" season as the week that includes Memorial Day through the week that includes Labor Day and pulled data from Box Office Mojo for that period.

For 2009, total receipts for all movies in the U.S. were $3.76 billion, up 4.6% from 2008. By the week including 4th of July, 2009 was up 5.5% from the same period in 2008. 2010 is down 11.9%. So yes, so far 2010 is looking like that not great of a summer.

Is it the marketing? Quality aside, while box office increased from 2008 to 2009, ad spending actually declined 9.5%, according to May through September figures from Kantar Media. We don't have 2010 numbers yet, but it's a leap to assume that there's any correlation between the ad spend and the final number on the register tape. We'll revisit this data once those data are in.

Finally, is it the quality of the movies? We asked Metacritic, a site that compiles scores from other review sites to create a "Metascore" for some data. They pulled the scores of all the movies released during our summer season from 2008, 2009 and through July 4, 2010. The average score in 2008 was a 57.0 out of 100. That denotes a firmly "mixed" review. In 2009 as box office increased 4.6% movies only got 0.7% "better" in the Metascore ranking. And as ticket revenues are declining in 2010, review scores are up 3.4% to an average Metascore of 59.4.

So what does any of this tell us? In our limited sample of two and a half years, it's hard to blame the marketing, or praise the product. If there is a good predictor of box-office success, we haven't found it and clearly neither have the studios (c.f. "Knight and Day").

Other than disproving the hypothesis that the advertising is always to blame, there was one other intriguing takeaway: With hundreds of movies released, the Metascores reflect very little variation from year to year. Also interesting is that the critics are pretty evenly divided across the board. An average score of 57-59 is on the high end of what Metacritic calls "mixed or average reviews."

So what do you think? Are you going to fewer movies this year? Why or why not?

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