"Sith" aside, there's a long, hot summer to go, and no guarantee that audiences will show up for the mix of remakes, horror flicks, period pieces and TV-shows-turned-features on deck, given a protracted lull that's seen revenue sink 5.6% and attendance slump 8.4% over 2004, according to Exhibitor Relations.
There's no one reason for the rut, which comes at a time when DVD sales are booming and consumers are able to view entertainment across a number of platforms, from their cable set-top boxes to their personal computers to their ever-more-elaborate home theaters.
The rising cost of movie tickets-the price is up about 3% on average this year compared to last-and competing forms of entertainment could be taking a bite out of moviegoing. So could the shrinking window between theatrical release and DVD, which in some cases is three months or less. It could also be high gas prices, daylight-saving time or simply uninspired movies that have kept audiences away.
"People have been fairly dissatisfied with the film offerings this year, and there are a number of factors conspiring to make us ask the broader questions about where the industry is headed," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "But I'm not ready to declare the death of moviegoing."
Some industry watchers, however, think the numbers are fairly ominous.
"We're seeing a real shift, and I think it's the beginning of a trend," said Peter Sealey, a marketing professor at the University of California at Berkeley and former marketing president at Columbia Pictures. "There's the old adage that if you have good movies, people will come. But we're at the point when new technology has finally begun to eat into traditional moviegoing."
To try to stem the tide, executives at the trade group National Association of Theater Owners are considering an ad campaign that would hype movie-going as a unique experience. Studios marketers, on the other hand, said they don't have any major changes in mind for their summer fare. Media-buying plans and corporate-partner promotions have been set for some time.
One reason the figures look so bad is the comparison with last year, when "The Passion of the Christ" surprised even its backers with an $83.8 million opening weekend. It went on to rake in $368.8 million domestically and become one of the top moneymakers of the year.
Some industry veterans say such spikes are an integral part of the industry. "It's a business of exceptions," said Oren Aviv, president-marketing at the Walt Disney Co.'s Buena Vista Pictures, which is hyping "Herbie: Fully Loaded." "That's the nature of the beast."
So far this year, there have been no "Passion"-size breakout hits. Instead, there have been more-modest earners like "Hitch," "The Pacifier" and "Monster-in-Law" and disappointments like "Mindhunters," "House of Wax" and "Kingdom of Heaven." The top dozen films the weekend of May 13 made $95.5 million, down 6.7% from a year ago when Universal's "Van Helsing" opened with $46.9 million.
From now until Labor Day and beyond, Hollywood will put out product at a relentless pace. Among the host of heavily-hyped movies coming is next weekend's family offering "Madagascar" from DreamWorks SKG and young-male-targeted "The Longest Yard" with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock.
Universal has high hopes for "Cinderella Man," with Oscar winners Russell Crowe and Renee Zellweger, as does Fox for its comic-book-inspired "Fantastic Four." Warner Bros. will release "Batman Begins," the first "Batman" movie in eight years, trying to distance the action thriller from the last movie in the franchise, the much-maligned "Batman & Robin." The studio also thinks its "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" can pull in families and Johnny Depp fans.
Paramount's "War of the Worlds" has the drawing power of Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, aliens and fiery explosions, while Fox's "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" has an added element of off-screen titillation to go with the on-screen pairing of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The results, whether good or bad, will be carefully monitored.
"It's way too soon to say there's a sea change," Mr. Dergarabedian said, "but at the same time, the studios really need this summer to be big."