LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Hollywood is whistling past the box office graveyard. Year to date, ticket sales are off 3% from the same portion of 2007, with misfiring films from an array of genres littering the landscape. The spring tally is off a big 19% so far in Nielsen EDI data, and eight of the past nine weekends underperformed the same frames from a year earlier.
Yet much of the industry reaction amounts to a collective "What, me worry?" with executives shrugging off the slack period as a simple cyclical downturn.
"It's all product-based," a studio executive said Monday. "There was a lot of product coming out over the last month or two that the audience didn't see. But all you have to do is look at the 'Iron Man' tracking numbers to see that the public is pumped for that, and it will just go on from there."
Awareness for the May 2 release, starring Robert Downey Jr. as the Marvel superhero, and some other big summer "tentpoles" does appear high. So perhaps understandably, the prospect of a summer salvation for the industry proved something of a theme in an informal poll of studio execs.
"Summer will be here very soon, and it's going to be terrific," another top player insisted. "And at the end of it all, it will be a terrific year. I really would be very surprised if at the end of the year we do not equal or surpass last year's box office."
Still, such sentiments could amount to wishful thinking. Last summer's $4.16 billion in industry box office was a record, built on three May openers that proved to be $300 million domestic grossers.
This May, the highest flyers will include Paramount's "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (May 22), Disney's "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" (May 16) and perhaps Warner Bros.' "Speed Racer" (May 9). Most box office handicappers expect at least one of those to travel north of $300 million, but anything beyond that is uncertain.
"Even with all the big titles this summer, it's still a tough comparison," Fox domestic distribution president Bruce Snyder acknowledged.
"You have some key dates coming up," noted another executive. "So if those don't do well in (year-over-year) comparisons, it could mean there's a bigger issue."
That's essentially a euphemism for the "R" word, even though recessions have tended to help Hollywood in the past. But with the average ticket cost pushing $7 and concession prices through the roof, some fear Americans might not consider a trip to the movies quite the cheap thrill it once was.
"I don't think you're going to know until mid-June," one studio executive estimated.
A spokesman for the chief exhibition trade group dismissed any connection between the boxoffice and the nation's economic downturn.
"I don't think what's driving this are the recessionary times," said Patrick Corcoran, operations chief for the National Association of Theatre Owners. "Just look at the product over the past couple months, and it's obvious what's missing are the big pictures."
Whether due to poor product or a poor public, only one film has grossed more than $100 million this year, with Fox's animated "Dr. Seuss' Horton Hears a Who!" ringing up $140 million through Sunday. By mid-April last year, there already were four films grossing beyond that benchmark -- "300," "Ghost Rider," "Blades of Glory" and "Wild Hogs."
"To be behind (2007) by just 3% without any of those big movies is pretty good," Corcoran said.
As for ticket prices, he added, "If you adjust for inflation, the average ticket price is still lower than it was 30 years ago."
Disney domestic distribution president Chuck Viane said he believes part of the year-to-date downtick involves Easter falling on March 23.
"Spring was always anticipated to be soft this year, because Easter was so early," Viane said. "Everybody tried to get their pictures into that spring break period, and it was just so condensed this year."
The spring downturn follows a 17% year-over-year surge in winter box office, which EDI calculates as running through March 13. But the looming tough summer comparison likely means it will be fall or later before Hollywood knows whether it can best last year's 12-month box office tally.
"It's hard to imagine reproducing a record-breaking $4 billion summer," said Dan Marks, a box office consultant to media clients. "So we're going to lose ground during the most lucrative part of the box office year, which will probably mean that '08 will fail to live up to '07."
On the other hand, there's still eight months left in the box office year for one film to overperform so dramatically as to carry the year on its mega-grossing back.
"That could be what it takes this summer," a top studio executive suggested. "One or two of the biggest films have to outperform those four $300 million pictures from last summer."