In Terms of Box Office Revenue, 2011 Was Third Best Ever for Hollywood

Posted 4:12 PM January 5th, 2012 by Senh Duong

I’ve been reading a bunch of articles based on David Germain's report which pointed out that admissions had dropped to a 16 year low. The number of tickets sold in 2011 was 1.28 billion. It hasn't been that low since 1995 when it was 1.26 billion. Because theater attendance went down, so too did the revenue. Writers honed in on this statistic and started giving their own reasons why people are not going to the movies as much anymore; if film studios don’t act soon, it would be the end of movies. Together, they gave me the impression that the sky is falling on the movie industry.

Just to see how awful 2011 was, I went to and checked out their yearly list. Afterwards, I was relieved. It’s not that bad. In fact, 2011 was actually a pretty good year when you base it on the most important figure: revenue.

First, let’s talk about that low attendance. Although attendance was down from 2010, it was just 4.7% - not the biggest dropoff ever. In 1985, attendance dropped by nearly 12%! In 2005, it was nearly 9%. Last year’s dropoff is somewhere in the middle, but that wouldn’t make headlines. “16 year low” makes headlines - and cause some people to freak out.

Second, in terms of revenue - the most important measurement - 2011 was actually the third best year of all-time. I repeat: third best of all-time. Box office revenue in 2011 from theatrical releases grossed $10.2B. It wasn't as good as 2010 or 2009 ($10.6B for each of those two years), but those years have the anomaly that is the $750M grossing "Avatar." Even Germain mentioned in his report that those two years were inflated by James Cameron's record-breaking scifi actioner, which was released in December of 2009 and continued its run into 2010. Avatar-sized hits are rare. They only happen when James Cameron decides that he’s done enough fishing after completing a film.

Let’s see how 2011 fared if Avatar was taken out of the equation. That would be $284M subtracted from 2009 and $466 from 2010, giving us $10.3B for 2009 and $10.1B for 2010. After the adjustment, 2011 looks even better. Last year’s revenue is slightly better than 2010, but also slightly behind 2009. And that ain’t bad.

The movie industry did pretty good last year, even without an Avatar-sized hit. It’s the third best year of all time - and if adjusted for the Avatar anomaly, it’s second best behind 2009. It’s unrealistic to expect an Avatar-sized hit every year anyway. If that’s the case, then the studios better convince James Cameron to spend less behind the fishing pole and more behind the camera.

Here are the top 10 highest grossing films of 2011:

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 ($381M)
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon ($352M)
3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 ($276M)
4. The Hangover Part II ($254M)
5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides ($241M)
6. Fast Five ($210M)
7. Cars 2 ($191M)
8. Thor ($181M)
9. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ($178M)
10. Captain America: The First Avenger ($177M)

(The big winner in 2011 was CGI - all but “The Hangover Part II” in the top 10 were effects-driven films. The top seven films were sequels. Critics tend to hate them, but they’re reliable. Marvel did well again - both “Thor” and “Captain America: The First Avenger” landed on the top 10. “Cars 2,” despite being crushed by critics, still managed nearly $200M. It didn’t do as well as the first film ($244M) though. “Fast Five” is the first in the series to pass the $200M mark, becoming the highest grossing of the series. That’s unheard of for the fifth film of a series. “Pirates” did good, too, with only Johnny Depp returning.)

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