Throughout the year, it seemed, moviegoers were offered little besides mediocre sequels and reboots, uninspired star vehicles, romance-free romantic comedies and jetsam from the 1980s pop culture landfill resurrected like brain-eating zombies. Ah, but we got to see so much of it in 3-D, and we only had to pay another 3 bucks or so for the privilege.
Hollywood studios, terrified of risk, stuck largely to formula this year, hoping the new wrinkle of rental spex would be enough to rescue the movie industry from unprofitability/irrelevance/Facebook/vague-threat-of-your-choice. But something weird happened on the way to the box office: the formulas failed to work. People stayed away from many of the movies that were supposed to be surefire hits and made hits out of movies that didn't fit the usual mold.
As going out to the movie theater became an increasingly costly and irksome experience, audiences demanded value. That may have frightened some in the executive suites, but if there's anything good that came out of this year's movie chaos, it may be the realization that the old ways of doing business will have to change, and that such change, if handled right, could prove an opportunity instead of a disaster.
It's not as if Hollywood didn't make money this year. It did -- more than $10 billion from domestic ticket sales. 2010 was the first year that boasted two billion-dollar movies (in worldwide sales), 'Toy Story 3' and 'Alice in Wonderland.' (And you could also count December 2009's 'Avatar,' which made much of its planet-wide haul in 2010.) As of Dec. 19, the domestic box office was 1.6 percent ahead of where it was at the same date last year.
But there were some grim signs amid the grosses. Average ticket prices went up to $7.95 from $7.50 a year ago. So when the year ends next week, it's likely that fewer tickets will be sold in 2010 than in 2009. In North America, moviegoers would have to buy about 67 million more tickets by the end of the year to tie 2009's gross of $10.6 billion, and even then, the number of tickets sold would be about 80 million shy of the 1.4 billion tickets sold last year.
Despite a strong start this year (largely attributable to 'Avatar' and 'Alice'), it was apparent by early summer that audiences were voting no with their feet. For the rest of the year, it was unclear whether any film (even 'Toy Story 3,' which sold $415 million worth of tickets at home and currently ranks No. 9 on the all-time box office list) would bring moviegoers back into the theaters in numbers like last year's.
What kept them away? Maybe it was trends like these:
•Retreads. Or "reboots," as the studios and the entertainment press like to call them, as if there was something original and fresh about remaking 'A Nightmare on Elm Street' with a new actor as Freddy and pretending that all the previous 'Nightmare's' never happened. Sometimes, the strategy worked ('The Karate Kid,''TRON: Legacy'), but most of this year's reboots, remakes and sequels seemed uninspired and stale. 'Shrek Forever After,''Saw 3-D,' and 'Nightmare' were among the movies that proved you can go back to the well only so many times. And just because a title was familiar didn't mean a sequel was merited. Was anyone actually clamoring for another helping of 'Cats & Dogs,' or a return 23 years later to 'Wall Street'? Did anyone really want a big-screen version of 'MacGyver' or 'Marmaduke' or 'Yogi Bear'? Or yet another gloss on 'The Wolfman' or 'Robin Hood'? Apparently not.
•Warmed-over '80s nostalgia. Either the people making movies (or greenlighting them) nowadays are children of the John Hughes era who have grown up and assumed positions of power, or else studios are so desperate for familiar titles that they'll remake anything that people remember from 30 years ago. 'Nightmare,' 'Karate Kid' and 'Predator' might have been obvious candidates for updates; less so 'Clash of the Titans,''The A-Team,' 'TRON' and 'Wall Street.' (And don't forget the inherent '80s nostalgia, however tongue in cheek, underlying such 2010 movies as 'The Expendables,''Hot Tub Time Machine,''MacGruber,''Cop Out,' and even retro Cold War thriller 'Salt.') Some of these movies worked, some didn't, and some (notably, 'Karate Kid') seemed to alienate fans of the original while pleasing a new generation with no memory of or emotional investment in the earlier version. In any case, the trend is only going to continue in 2011 and 2012, with new renditions of 'Arthur,''Conan,''Firestarter,''Red Dawn,''Footloose,''21 Jump Street' and 'The Thing' (a remake of a 30-year-old movie that was itself a remake of a 30-year-old movie). Watch your back, Ferris, they're probably coming for you next.
•Stalled star vehicles. It used to be a truism (at least among those who signed A-listers' $20 million paychecks) that it was big names that drew ticketbuyers on opening weekend. Yet several once-bankable names saw their movies fizzle this year. Russell Crowe failed to entice viewers to see 'Robin Hood' or 'The Next Three Days.' Jennifer Aniston failed to draw crowds to 'The Bounty Hunter' or 'The Switch.' Cher tried a comeback with 'Burlesque,' Jennifer Lopez tried one with 'The Back-Up Plan' and Mel Gibson tried one with 'Edge of Darkness,' but audiences were less than enthusiastic. Robert Pattinson's 'Remember Me' and Kristen Stewart's 'The Runaways' cast doubt on their ability to sell tickets to movies that don't have the word 'Twilight' in the title. Even combined star power -- Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz in 'Knight and Day,' Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher in 'Killers,' Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie in 'The Tourist' and the ensemble of Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson, Paul Rudd and Jack Nicholson in 'How Do You Know' -- wasn't a big enough sell. Of course, the other things all these movies had in common were weak scripts and poor execution. Depp may have been golden in 'Alice' and Jolie in 'Salt,' but not even their combined prettiness could lure viewers to a vehicle as empty as 'The Tourist.'
•Failed new franchises. One thing that was actually supposed to make stars obsolete was franchise movies, films dependent on familiarity with the premise and characters, rather than on who happened to be playing them. (It's why Marvel feels it can reboot 'Spider-Man' even though the Tobey Maguire movies are still fresh in everyone's memory.) But again, audiences refused to take the bait for such would-be franchise launchers as 'The Last Airbender,' 'Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief,' 'The A-Team,' 'Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole,''Jonah Hex,''Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time' and 'The Sorcerer's Apprentice.' That these last two were expensive duds from the production house of Jerry Bruckheimer, the franchise-creating expert who had turned a theme park ride in to Disney's huge 'Pirates of the Caribbean' films, suggested that the old franchise formulas have run their course.
•3-D. In the wake of 'Avatar,' 2010 saw about 24 new 3-D movies, more than ever before. About a third of them were shot in 2-D but hastily and shoddily retrofitted into 3-D. Almost every animated feature that came out this year was in 3-D. Those films that already boasted carefully crafted storytelling and visuals ('Toy Story 3,' 'How to Train Your Dragon,''Despicable Me,''Megamind,' 'Tangled') thrived. Others at least made original, unique use of the new palette ('Step Up 3-D,''Jackass 3-D'). In others, the cynicism and crassness behind the gimmickry was apparent ('Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,''Piranha 3-D.') In any case, with an average of two 3-D movies opening each month, most of them family-oriented, the market was quickly oversaturated. Add to that the fact that there still aren't that many 3-D screens, and they're expensive for theater owners to convert, and you began to see a bitter competition for scarce real estate. Still, Hollywood was convinced that the $3 glasses-rental surcharge was going to save the business; moviegoers were less convinced that they were always getting extra spectacle that merited paying for the extra spectacles. So far, however, the novelty hasn't worn off, so in 2011, we'll see at least 32 3-D movies.
So what did audiences like in 2010? Well they did like the formula movies -- the star vehicles, the summer action blockbusters, the 3-D toons, the sequels and retreads -- if they were done well. They liked the formula movies if they were done in ways that broke the formula conventions. (Exhibit A: 'Inception.')
The bottom has largely fallen out of the independent and foreign-language film markets in recent years, yet there were signs of life there, too, with the modest successes of such indies (or quasi-indies) as 'The Kids Are All Right,' Tyler Perry's 'Why Did I Get Married Too?''Black Swan,''The Fighter,''The King's Speech,''Cyrus' and 'City Island.' Foreign films that made a splash included 'The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo' and its two sequels, 'The Secret in Their Eyes,''I Am Love' and 'A Prophet.' It was a good year for documentaries, including 'Oceans,''Babies,' 'Waiting for Superman,''Exit Through the Gift Shop,''Inside Job,''Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work,''Restrepo' and 'The Tillman Story.'
The kind of mid-budget dramatic and comedic fare that the studios had long since abandoned to the indies (so that they could focus either on expensive blockbusters that they had developed smooth-running machinery to market or cheap horror films that marketed themselves) began to make a comeback at the studios. Somewhere in the middle, at budgets of around $40 million, movies like 'The Social Network' and 'The Town' were attracting audiences, critical acclaim and awards buzz. Other medium-budgeted studio movies that did well: 'Dear John' (budget: $25 million), 'Easy A' ($8 million), 'Secretariat' ($35 million), 'Takers' ($32 million), 'She's Out of My League' ($20 million), 'Love and Other Drugs' ($30 million), 'Nanny McPhee Returns' ($35 million), 'Kick-Ass' ($30 million), 'Predators' ($40 million), 'Ramona and Beezus' ($15 million) and most incredibly, alien-invasion thriller 'Skyline,' made for just $10 million but looking like 10 times as much.
It's possible that new technology will do for Hollywood what reliance on familiar stars and familiar plots and titles can't. Digital advances will make effects filmmaking on the cheap a la 'Skyline' more common, while the 'Jackass' boys, of all people, have proved that 3-D can be put affordably in the hands of any filmmaker and can be used in innovative ways without having to invent an expensive planet of blue aliens. And screenwriters like 'Inception's' Christopher Nolan and 'Social Network's' Aaron Sorkin have proved that mass audiences are smart enough to follow complicated, time-jumping narratives that are told from multiple perspectives and that don't rely on familiar characters. In short, it is possible for Hollywood to make a profit without spending a fortune on spectacle or stars or relying on the tired formulas that audiences snubbed in 2010. But it will take courage on the part of the studios to break free of old, no longer effective ways of making movies. It will also take courage on the part of moviegoers to seek out offbeat filmmakers and rule-breaking movies instead of staying home or rewarding business as usual.
*Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.