If your livelihood is tied to the success of movie theaters, or you’re a person who still worships at the shrine of the big screen, the news that the domestic box office set a new record this year might seem like a belated Christmas present. But just under the surface of this milestone, you’ll find the same trends that have defined moviegoing for a decade now — and they aren’t a cause for optimism.
On Wednesday, this year’s cumulative North American box office passed the $11.14 billion total reached in 2015, ending the day around the $11.19 billion mark, according to comScore. With a few days left in the year, and movies like Rogue One and Sing still going strong, comScore is projecting that the 2016 mark should end up around $11.35 billion, setting a new record for domestic receipts.
Now, you might be looking at these numbers and thinking to yourself, Wait: I thought Netflix and piracy and smartphones had killed moviegoing? You’d be right, in that this achievement isn’t the cause for celebration it might seem. There are a few reasons for that, but the most important one should be familiar to anybody who’s been following along with the fortunes of the film industry over the last few years — and that’s the number of tickets sold each year.
According to industry tracker The Numbers, when you adjust for ticket-price inflation, you see a different trend in the direction of the box office over the last couple decades. By that measure, the domestic box office reached a high of $13.3 billion (in 2016 dollars) in 2002, on the strength of hits like Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. At the time, the average ticket price was $5.81.
But based on The Numbers’ data, 2002 is the only year that box-office take has crossed the adjusted $13 billion mark. In 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, and 2004, the box office topped $12 billion, but since 2005, adjusted box office has been in the $10 to 11 billion range, with the average ticket price rising all the way up to $8.43 in 2015 — a 31 percent increase over 2002. This means that as tickets become more expensive, fewer people have been buying them, with the approximately 1.3 billion tickets sold in 2016 falling well short of 2002’s 1.58 billion.
If tickets are becoming more expensive, it stands to reason that a new domestic record should be set every year. In that regard, at least, this year is a positive — after all, it could’ve gone down, as it has in some recent years. Plus, movie-theater attendance doesn’t tell the full story of the industry’s health, with more ways than ever before to actually see a film. But with television viewership growing — not to mention the possibility of at-home rentals for first-run films increasing by the day — this is as much a Pyrrhic victory as a historic success, particularly for the big theater chains. And the challenges certainly haven’t gone away.