The global box office increased 4 % to a new record of $36.4 billion. Domestic (U.S./Canada) dropped 5 %. China’s total of $4.8 billion was up a huge 34 %, which singlehandedly improved the combined global total, marking an improvement from 2013.
While the MPAA presents this news as upbeat, digging through the information yields some tidbits that are worth pondering.
1. The domestic box office drop was worse than it looked.
1.27 billion tickets were sold last year. But the 5 % revenue drop (lessened only slightly by a tiny average ticket price increase) computes to a 6 % drop in per capita attendance (that is compared to the larger total population, which increases every year). The MPAA only provides charts going back to 2005, but a look back to even the weakest years in total box office and calculating lesser ticket prices shows that per capita movie attendance has declined to the lowest level in many decades.
2. Older and very young audiences kept things going.
The MPAA didn’t provide a complete breakdown of the ages of ticket buyers, but they did among “frequent moviegoers” (those who go once a month or more, accounting for 51% of the total). Those over 40 made up a surprisingly high 40% of frequent attendees, up a third from the 30% in 2013, with nearly all the growth coming from those 50 or older. Those over 40 are now more likely to be regular patrons than the supposed core group (12-24, 34%). The latter group actually only dropped slightly (they were 35% in 2013), but have been in decline now for some time.
The big collapse collapse came among 25 – 39 year olds (19%, down from 23%). This suggests a demographic busy with careers and families gravitating to increasing home viewing options. Those under 12 boomed– 12% of the total, up from 7%–somewhat surprising, as several animated films performed below expectations (perhaps because they didn’t appeal as much to older viewers).
3. Domestic frequent moviegoers returned to a majority white audience.
Most likely because of the growth in older ticket buyers, the minority (defined by the MPAA as African-American, Hispanic and Asian/”other”) frequent moviegoers totaled 44%, down from 51% in 2013. This is somewhat unsettling, as these moviegoers have tended to be younger people and, particularly among Latinos, a growth engine. Minorities still remain more active ticket buyers compared to the population as a whole, but since movies specifically targeted at them might not always have international appeal, they have not been targeted as a priority for the studios.
4. Gender breakdowns remain consistent, and reflect the population.
52% of tickets sold last year in the domestic market were to females, the same as in 2013, and just ahead of the 51% population share. The uptick in female appeal films last year (including some sleeper hits) seems not to have fueled gains in the overall take.
5. The domestic share of the box office total keeps falling.
The U.S./Canada part of the full figure dropped to 28.6%.from 30.4% in 2013. As the domestic share declines, more movies will be made mainly with their foreign appeal in mind, and elements that might have more at home interest – in themes, stories, demographics – could have trouble getting greenlit, at least above a certain level of budget.
6. China as the center of growth is a risk.
With projections that China might overtake the U.S./Canada as the top revenue source by the end of the decade, at least two caveats need to be considered before this is celebrated as great news. The single largest growth area also sees the lowest return in film rental — the centrally-controlled market turns only 25% to studios (unless there is specific Chinese production participation). And since the government also tightly controls content in terms of censorship, declining to release a wide number of movies and then demanding changes in final release versions, the studios likely will become ever readier to shape major films to Chinese tastes.
7. Digital has won.
90% of screens worldwide now play digital, up from 83% in 2013. Near universal digital play is almost here, despite pleas as late as this week from directors like Christopher Nolan to keep a place for celluloid film.