Roger Ebert Blames Theaters for Poor 2011 Box Office Showing

Hollywood box office numbers are down significantly from 2010. Movie attendance is at its lowest rate in 16 years. Piracy and file-sharing seems to be getting plenty of blame. But Roger Ebert isn’t buying it. Nor is he buying this Fishie’s contention that a glut of crap movies is at fault. On his blog, Ebert argues that while 2011 lacked an Avatar to boost box office numbers, the theater experience is to blame for Hollywood’s poor showing. Which is interesting, because the spate of 3-D movies that came out this year were supposed to be about improving the theater-going experience–providing something viewers couldn’t have at home.

But Ebert says 3-D ticket prices are gouging audiences. That, combined with concession gouging, and inconsiderate idiots with cell phones in the theaters are keeping people home. But all that could be overcome, Ebert argues, if theaters just took a chance on the American viewing audience and started screening decent films.

Writes Ebert:

Box-office tracking shows that the bright spot in 2011 was the performance of indie, foreign or documentary films. On many weekends, one or more of those titles captures first-place in per-screen average receipts. Yet most moviegoers outside large urban centers can’t find those titles in their local gigantiplex. Instead, all the shopping center compounds seem to be showing the same few overhyped disappointments. Those films open with big ad campaigns, play a couple of weeks, and disappear.

The myth that small-town moviegoers don’t like “art movies” is undercut by Netflix’s viewing results; the third most popular movie on Dec. 28 on Netflix was “Certified Copy,” by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. You’ve heard of him? In fourth place–French director Alain Corneau’s “Love Crime.” In fifth, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”–but the subtitled Swedish version.

The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can’t depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.

Could art house theaters in middle America translate to big box office numbers in 2012? We’re a little skeptical. We lived in New Orleans for five years–a city with one theater that plays decent indie films. Let’s just say those screenings were typically pretty lonely. Would those films have done better if they screened in one of the bigger picture palaces? Doubtful. We saw 127 Hours there last year and there were five people in attendance–all of whom spent nearly the entire film shouting “When is he gonna cut his ahhhm off?”