It’s popular in some circles to insist that they don’t make films as good as they used to, and that modern box office has suffered a steady decline as less people attend and the studios make less money. Well, that’s all myth, as 2013 helped demonstrate by becoming the second record-setting year at the box office in a row. Worldwide, the 2013 box office took in at least $10.9 billion in total receipts, and that figure could still adjust upward a bit more as final numbers from some foreign markets come in.
The increase in box office for 2013 was particularly impressive, since 2012 had no less than four films taking more than $1 billion in worldwide receipts — The Avengers, Skyfall, The Dark Knight Rises, and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey — not to mention a few other big performers like Ice Age: Continental Drift, Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 2, The Amazing Spider-Man, Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted, and The Hunger Games.
2013 managed to top all of that with just a single $1+ billion film — Iron Man 3 — and a handful of big performers including Despicable Me 2, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Fast & Furious 6, Monsters University, Man of Steel, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Thor: The Dark World, and The Croods.
So this past year’s performance did a lot of heavy lifting without the same top-heavy support, and instead relying on a broader field of play with a lot of mid-range performers to help prop up the box office, and relying much more on foreign receipts for the under-$1 billion crowd. Domestically, 2013′s box office totals and 2012′s box office totals looked remarkably similar.
2013′s increase over 2012′s box office (which, as noted above, set a new record at the time) should come as no real surprise. For the last 30 years, 23 of those years saw increases over previous-year box office totals. The last 20 years saw just four declines from previous-year totals, and that includes a couple of years with miniscule drops (one of which came in 2010, the year after Avatar began its huge run and helped 2009 to a rare huge 10% jump in revenue).
Ticket sales are less consistent, but over time the general trend is upward. Total ticket purchases increased for just over 20 years starting in 1980 (when we start having dependable figures), until in 2003 a trend began in which years with decreased ticket sales outnumbered years with ticket sales increases (three years of increases mixed in among eight years of declines). However, the difference between total declines compared to total increases during that 11-year period is 14%, and only half of those decline years were really significant — meaning 4+% drops from the previous year.
Looking at the film release schedule for the next two years, it looks increasingly likely that we’re going to see two more years of box office increases over previous years, and I’d bet that 2015 has a notable increase in ticket sales as well, even if 2014 only has a small ticket sales increase or perhaps tiny decline.
As for quality of films, this is a debate I’m sure will continue for a long time without end. However, I’d make my usual point that if we pick any previous era of cinema, and select the best year of films from that era — for example, perhaps 1939 or a year from the beloved 1970s era — we’d be hard pressed to find a dozen films that we could seriously call valid contenders for Best Picture at the Oscars, let alone 15 to 20 such contenders. In the modern era of film, however, it’s not hard to find more than a dozen strong contenders and usually 20 or more contenders including some dark horse candidates.
Likewise, pick the worst films of any prior beloved era of cinema, and compare them to modern examples of the worst films released in theaters. At the very least, modern examples will pretty consistently demonstrate a level of basic competence at technical skills — editing, lighting, sound — superior to the worst films of prior eras.
But most important in the arguments bashing modern cinema are the claims that everything today is a remake or a sequel, and that big budget style-over-substance productions dominate whereas in the “good ol’ days” this wasn’t true. Well, that’s another big myth.
Studios consistently relied on adaptations and sequels (or pseudo-sequels) and remakes since the beginning of studio filmmaking. Go back to the 1930s and start counting — any year you pick, you’ll find a large portion of the year’s films, including a large portion of the years’ best films and Oscar nominees — were adapted from previous work or mediums.
There were also lots of serials and sequels, such as the Tarzan franchise for example or the Abbott and Costello movies. And big budget musicals or historical dramas were quite common as well. All the while, studios were making movies to try and reap big box office rewards, since this is a business and there was never an era when all the studios cared to make were low-budget artsy films purely to satisfy the artistic sensibilities of film critics and indie fans.
2013 was not only a big year at the box office, it was a great year for filmmaking as well. And I wish more people paid attention to the facts of the past and were grateful for the continued high quality of filmmaking we enjoy today.