What Can We Learn in 2024 From The Box Office Blues of 2005?

"Stealth" San Diego Premiere - Arrivals
"Stealth" San Diego Premiere - Arrivals / Albert L. Ortega/GettyImages

There's no getting around it: the 2024 domestic box office is in a dismal place. As of this writing (a few days into June 2024), the year has only amassed $2.64 billion, a staggering 27% decline from the same point in 2023. That's also down 6% from the same point in 2022 and a 43% plummet from the domestic box office's haul in early June 2019. These kind of financial troubles inevitably leads one mind’s to wander to the past. Specifically, were there other years at the domestic box office also seemingly cursed? 2024 is a very special case as a year plagued by a sparse slate of new releases, an outcome informed by studios failing to both commit to theatrical cinema and refusing to pay artists livable wages for much of 2023. However, there are precursors to 2024 in modern years where it seemed like the domestic box office was in a tailspin it could never recover from.

One of those years was none other than 2005, the midway point of the first decade of the 21st century.

The domestic box office in 2005 was full of challenges and pitfalls, but one statistic really rankled box office analysts that year: year-to-year grosses. A bevy of 2005 domestic box office weekends were down from the same frames in 2004. There was even a 19-week-long trend from March to July 2005 where every single 2005 weekend was down from the same 2004 weekend. What brought an end to that phenomenon? Fantastic Four, of course! In 2005, a team of superheroes controlled in film by 20th Century Fox saved the box office. In 2024, all eyes are on Deadpool and Wolverine, which builds on the legacy of Fox/Marvel movies, to save the domestic box office. Time is a flat circle.

The disappointing 2005 box office was exacerbated by the lack of massive hits that populated the preceding three years of North American moviegoing. There were no $400+ million domestic grosses like 2004 juggernauts Shrek 2 and Spider-Man that summer. Flops that year like Bewitched, The Bad News Bears, Sahara, and Stealth all lost millions even with big names on their respective posters and even larger budgets at their back. Even some of the biggest movies of the year were expected to be bigger. King Kong, for example, made over $200 million domestically. However, it was expected to make Lord of the Rings business (read: over $300 million). Chicken Little outgrossed early 2000s Disney Animation flops like Home on the Range, but it made significantly less than any Pixar movie released before 2015. There were even initial perceptions that Batman Begins should've done better financially (its $205 million domestic haul was barely more than half of the first Spider-Man from three years earlier).

Not even the award season contenders of that year could restore luster to the 2005 box office landscape. Good Night, and Good Luck, for instance, made $23.5 million over its first 13 weekends of release (all of them contained within the final weeks of 2005). That’s a perfectly fine haul, but also not a breakout hit even by 2005 standards. Box office flop Rent couldn't hope to compare to 2002 musical hit Chicago, while major hit Brokeback Mountain made the majority of its $83 million domestic cume in 2006. Any hopes a holiday season adult drama would break out and make up for the underperforming summer 2005 titles quickly dissipated.

Despite these enormous hurdles, 2005 eventually made $8.8 billion domestically, still the fourth-biggest North American haul up to that point. the year, though below the first four years of the 21st century, weren't that far from the "norms" of modern ticket sales. 2005 also had greater domestic attendance than all but one year in the 2010s! Still, those “big picture” looks at the 2005 domestic box office were largely eschewed in media coverage of the box office that year. Outlets instead pored over whether or not 2005 was a harbinger of theatrical moviegoing heading for the trash bin.

An October 2005 Entertainment Weekly piece, for example, relied on Nielsen EDI data to observe that there were only three other instances since 1982 where domestic box office revenue dropped year-to-year. With ticket prices always going up (thanks inflation!), the idea was annual box office revenue should always increase too. While there’s logic to that concept, the idea of endless increases in revenue for any business is absurd. There will always be peaks and valleys for any marketplace. Theatrical moviegoing is no different.

Meanwhile, a June 2005 CNN piece asked if "shrinking DVD windows" (the time between a movies premiere and when it hit DVD) were inspiring moviegoers to skip the theater, hence the decreasing box office revenue. Reading this concern, it's darkly amusing to remember a time when a six-month gap between a movie’s theatrical debut and home video premiere was considered too fast. Now Universal hurries most of its titles to premium video-on-demand services just 17 days after their theatrical bow! This same article expresses an idea currently being tossed around again concerning the need for lower ticket prices for theatrical screenings.

The endless speculation from 2005 writers over why the then-current domestic box office was so crummy offers fascinating parallels to the 2024 cinematic landscape. However, 2005’s financial turmoil was tied to an issue very specific to that year. 2005 followed a quartet of years (2001-2004) home to the highest levels of movie attendance in the 21st century. These were years populated by adaptations of popular worlds (Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Spider-Man) that folks had been waiting years or even decades to be seen on the big screen. 2005’s blockbusters like King Kong and Fantastic Four couldn’t possibly compare to those early 2000s beasts.

Computer-animated films, meanwhile, were still so scarce from 2001-2004 that each new film (save for the occasional Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) was a must-see event. It shouldn’t be a surprise that 2005, by contrast, housed the first major CG-animated family movie flop, Valiant. Without those special franchises and the bloom a bit off the rose for CGI features, 2005’s box office would always pale in comparison. In retrospect, the box office struggles of 2005 didn’t necessarily reflect extreme deficiency in that year’s films. They simply demonstrated the problems in trying to follow up monster box office years like 2001-2004.

The constant fretting that theatrical moviegoing was going down the tubes in 2005 is also a good reminder for pop culture analysts to have some perspective in 2024. The domestic box office this year is unquestionably dismal. However, theatrical moviegoing kept going 19 years after the troubles of 2005 even with everyone sounding the alarm over the medium’s demise. Poor box office frames (like the year 2011 or the summer of 2017) leave everyone scrambling in terror over whether or not this is a sign of larger industry rot. This is especially true now that so much of the entertainment industry is dictated by the whims of shareholders, who can sink a studio's stock simply based on whether or not a new movie clears $1 billion in its first three days of release.

Word of advice to people: do not mimic the behavior of shareholders in any situation. Folks who just have money because of their rich parents or apartheid diamond mines should not have any influence in society, let alone massively impact the trajectory of the entertainment industry. The skittishness and constant apocalyptic fervor of such souls is often entirely uncalled for, as seen by the doomsday predictions of 2005 going nowhere.

However, while problems with the 2005 box office offer some hope for 2024 in certain regards, editorials from that year critiquing the theatrical landscape should give Hollywood some pause in other respects. Theatrical moviegoing isn’t going anywhere…but understandable complaints about its accessibility have been going on for nearly two decades (and even longer than that!) Take the recurring critiques that theatrical moviegoing is too expensive circa. 2005. 19 years later, we live in a landscape where premium ticket prices (for IMAX, XD, Dolby Cinema, and other large format screens) are omnipresent. Standard 2D ticket prices have skyrocketed even as minimum-wage salaries stay stagnant. If ticket prices were too high in 2005, they’re incredibly too much in 2024. Creating more discount days (perhaps during the weekdays when attendance typically craters) or finding ways to make tickets cheaper would help solve a problem that’s clearly plagued the theatrical landscape for a while.

Meanwhile, concerns in 2005 about shrinking windows between the theatrical debut of movies and when they hit people’s homes have only become more severe in the last two decades. Studios need to commit more to theatrical exclusivity and realize how much that helps features stand out in a crowded pop culture landscape. The scarcity and brevity of a theatrical release make your motion picture pop, there’s some urgency in seeing it on the big screen. Hollywood studios have always been in a rush to exploit other potentially “more lucrative” home media mediums, as seen by those comments from 2005 about release windows. Major studios need to preserve and treasure theatrical windows, not sending new films to Max, Paramount+, Hulu, and other streamers quickly or even immediately with no theatrical release.

Finally, there’s an issue plaguing 2024 that few in 2005 could’ve imagined: a scarcity of movies and studios. Back in 2005, entities like New Line Cinema, 20th Century Fox, and DreamWorks SKG (among others) were all standalone studios providing tons of new features to theaters everywhere. Nearly two decades later, they’ve been absorbed by larger conglomerates. The Hollywood landscape is now controlled by a handful of studios putting out as few theatrical movies as possible. Compounding this monopoly is that these companies refused to give artists livable wages in 2023, which spurred on a pair of lengthy strikes that stopped productions in Hollywood. Executives didn’t want to cooperate with striking artists and now the slate of 2024 new releases is as sparse as can be.

The domestic box office rebounded from 2005 thanks to a hefty slate of titles hitting theaters in 2006. Even Disney's Touchstone Pictures division put out seven different movies that year! We need a steady stream of motion pictures inhabiting a wide range of genres to get people back to theaters. An erratic release schedule oriented heavily around horror and action movies aimed at 40+-year-old men isn’t a way to get the 2024 box office back on track. Hollywood survived the box office turmoil of 2005. That fact should reassure people that 2024’s financial woes can also be overcome.

However, the very unique problems plaguing 2024’s theatrical landscape (namely centered around monopolistic and uncaring corporations) should give people pause. People love going to the movies. The box office can always rebound from low points. Those facts are clear from the larger place 2005’s disappointing domestic box office gross occupies in history. However, will those two eternal truths endure in the face of corporations more interested in tax write-offs than serving customers and theater owners? The odds don't look great right now, frankly. However, if Hollywood could survive the year of Stealth, then anything is possible...

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