The box office holiday season in North America was a big letdown, as a series of major box office hopes stumbled by the wayside. The problem lies not with the audience but with the films.

They say that US cinemagoers dictate worldwide moviegoing trends and, if that is the case, the holiday season signposts some major problems ahead. In what can only be described as disappointing, by some as disastrous, the studio seasonal offerings positively failed to capture the imagination of audiences.
The 2010/11 New Year’s weekend was off 27% from the same weekend last year. True, Avatar was unusually powerful last year with a $68.5m weekend but Sherlock Holmes and Alvin And The Chipmunks 2 both took more than $35m while It’s Complicated, The Blind Side and Up In The Air all seduced adults on over $10m apiece.
This year, the winner was Little Fockers with $25.8m, followed by True Grit on $24.4m, Tron Legacy on $18.8m and Yogi Bear on $12.4m. In addition to True Grit, adult audiences were served by The Fighter ($10m) and Black Swan ($8.9m).
But the wide release woes didn’t just start at Christmas. The end of year holiday season commenced at the beginning of November and weekend after weekend, wannabe blockbusters crashed at the box office, or at best underperformed.
Independents trying to hit big all tumbled with The Next Three Days,The Warrior’s Way, Faster and Skyline.
Burlesque was a musical disappointment, singing up just $37.7m; Unstoppable, Morning Glory and Love And Other Drugs were all unremarkable performers for their stars and Megamind was DreamWorks Animation’s lowest grossing movie since Bee Movie in 2007.
Fox’s attempt to kickstart the Narnia franchise with Voyage Of The Dawn Treader was a domestic disappointment, taking $87m in its first month, while effects extravaganzas Tron Legacy and Yogi Bear were in the box office shadow of last year’s Avatar and Chipmunks 2.
And then there were Gulliver’s Travels and The Tourist, both expensive adventure movies relying on big movie stars to bring in the audiences. Neither caught fire: indeed, the former was a domestic bomb and the latter one of the year’s most critically lambasted pictures. The bad word of mouth on Angelina and Johnny’s Venice romp spread like wildfire and it tumbled out of the top five in its second weekend.
So what did work? Well, Harry Potter, of course. The seventh film in the series – is set to surpass $290m domestically. And Disney’s inhouse 3D animated movie Tangled rode a wave of good critical response to become the season’s family favourite. It currently stands at $170m.
Internationally, the picture was quite different. The Tourist is doing brisk business and, at $65m has quickly surpassed domestic. Meanwhile Gulliver’s Travels has opened strong with a $50m international take already doubling domestic. Narnia meanwhile is a decided hit overseas with a $211m gross so far versus $87m domestic. Of course Potter is an international phenomenon ($618m at time of going to press) and Tangled is gaining on domestic with $146.5m to date.
So what went wrong? Was it just a case of some bad movies that didn’t deliver? Or does the holiday movie slate offer some valuable lessons that you can’t take your audience for granted?
Certainly the relative failure in the US of star vehicles for Russell Crowe, Denzel Washington, Johnny Depp, Angelina Jolie and Jack Black shows that you can’t guarantee success by buying in costly above-the-title names. Perhaps the same can also be said about putting untried young actors like Garrett Hedlund (Tron Legacy), Eric Balfour (Skyline) and Ben Barnes (Narnia) in the driving seat.
But then again, perhaps the biggest problem is that many of these mainstream audience films lack a distinctive voice or point of view. Audiences can tell when a movie arrives without a certain style or vision or is too transparently designed to hit the right buttons. As we sit in the dark, we want a master storyteller to take us on a journey, not to be told by a film-making process what we should respond to. That is just boring.
Avatar and Inception are the inspired writing and directing visions of James Cameron and Christopher Nolan. And it’s no coincidence that the three surprise hits of the season – True Grit, Black Swan and The Fighter – are made by some of the most accomplished film-makers working today.
The only surprise is that the studio film-making process so often manufactures its biggest projects without the best writers and directors.