What's Behind 2014's Box-Office Slide: Franchise Fatigue, Fewer Big Movies

Fox sets a $5.5 billion record in 2014, but domestic gross drops 5.2 percent and attendance hits a 20-year low as theaters blame the product

This story first appeared in the Jan. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

On far too many Sunday mornings in 2014, the refrain from studio executives was the same: "We're not sure what happened."

Domestic movie attendance came in at an estimated 1.26 billion, a two-decade low and down about 6 percent year-over-year. Revenue tumbled 5.2 percent to $10.3 billion. Most troubling, several franchise pictures — including Paramount's Transformers: Age of Extinction and Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 — grossed less than their predecessors domestically, pointing to the flight of younger moviegoers. Foreign box office, fueled by China, made up the difference, so 2014 wasn't a disaster. Plus, a handful of surprises, including Guardians of the Galaxy and The Lego Movie, proved that fresh takes on known brands (Marvel, Lego) can pay off. Global revenue for the six major studios, plus Lionsgate, was $24.3 billion, on par with 2013's $24.4 billion. Still, the domestic drop puts big pressure on 2015.

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Theater owners deny rising ticket prices had anything to do with the downturn. "The only thing the theater business needs is more movies; big four-quadrant movies, quiet dramas, niche comedies — you name it," says Patrick Corcoran, vp of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "There were 45 percent fewer $100 million-budgeted movies in the summer, and box office was off 15 percent. That's the entire difference between 2013 and 2014."

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Fox domestic distribution chief Chris Aronson agrees that top content is most important, but he believes ticket costs (now more than $8.15 on average) are a factor. "We have to make sure the price proposition is in balance," he says. Fox enjoyed its best year, hitting $5.5 billion globally, a record. And many say 2015 will restore order to the rest of Hollywood, led by Disney's Avengers: Age of Ultron (May 1) and Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Dec. 18). Analyst Eric Handler of MKM Partners already is predicting that 2015 domestic revenue will surpass $11 billion, an all-time high. "You are asking people to make a commitment of time, money and energy, and when they are rewarded with a wonderful experience, they will come back time and again," says Rentrak's Paul Dergarabedian. "In 2014, there simply were not enough of those experiences."