June 1, 2009

I knew I wasn't missing much at the movies lately

As a child and teenager I went to the movies a lot -- and not only because that's where many of the big video game arcades were located circa 1992. In college, I was insulated from all of pop culture. If memory serves, I saw four movies in four years. Oddly, though, after graduating, I still went to the movies only rarely -- there just didn't seem to be anything good out. Was I the only one? Looks like "no" --

These data are pieced together from several versions of the Statistical Abstract of the United States. It shows how many movie tickets were sold, divided by the size of the population, so it says how many movies the average person saw during the year. This number doesn't change radically -- it's always between 4 to 6 movies per year -- but there is still an upward movement from the late 1980s until 2002, and a downward movement from 2003 through 2007. The mid-'80s sucked, although the late '70s and early '80s were cool.

Most people associate movies from the 1980s with the teen comedy genre, and the graph above suggests that the ones made from 1985 to 1988 will be bad compared to the ones made from 1982 to 1984, or in 1989. Sure enough, all of those whiny blame-my-parents movies by John Hughes came out then (although Sixteen Candles came out in 1984). Fast Times at Ridgemont High was a lot better, and not surprisingly came out in 1982. The best teen movie, Heathers, came out in 1989.

The same is true for horror / slasher movies, another genre central to the decade. After the first Nightmare on Elm Street and Terminator movies came out in 1984, it was more or less finished.

Notice how little movie attendance responds to the state of the economy -- true, there's a dip during the recessions of the early '80s and early '90s, and there's a surge during the '90s boom. However, there's a lull during the '80s boom, a surge during the early 2000s recession, and a lull during the recent housing boom era. No real consistent relationship. That probably doesn't stop people from claiming that the masses will pile into movie theaters during hard times to escape the harshness of reality, or that people will abandon movie theaters during hard times in order to save money or to not be reminded of Hollywood celebrities. The state of the economy may affect how many movies get made, perhaps even what their subject matter is. But as far as just going to the movies is concerned, economic health predicts little.

So now I don't feel so guilty about being out of the movie loop for the past 6 or 7 years. Apparently there wasn't much worth seeing. And it's not that I sheltered myself from pop culture generally, or that I'm averse to whatever's new -- I was very in touch with rock music when it was good, around 2003 to 2005 (maybe even into 2006). It sounded great, fast-paced, made you move. TV shows from that time weren't so bad either -- I kept up with Family Guy, Project Runway, even Made or True Life on MTV.

But none of the handful of movies that I saw each year thrilled me and made me want to catch up on things. The last movie that I had a blast at in the theater was The Big Lebowski in 1998. (Well, they showed Amelie on campus in 2002 or 2003, but that was French, not Hollywood.)

I'm sure there are some good ones that I missed, but that's true for any medium in any period. On the whole, though, movie-goers seem to have sensed that movies released after 2002 pretty much sucked.


  1. My guess is that not too many people actually see the average of 4 to 6 movies per person/per year. It's more like either zero (for the majority of the population, perhaps a substantial majority) or 10+ (for a small but dedicated minority).


  2. But that has nothing to do with the change over time in the average.

  3. "So now I don't feel so guilty about being out of the movie loop for the past 6 or 7 years. Apparently there wasn't much worth seeing."

    LOL, because what can be deemed as "good" stems directly from what the average american watches. hint: the correlation between how many movies were worth seeing in a year and how many movies the average american watches in a year is zero. i don't mean to be too harsh, but this didn't really make sense.

  4. Nah, people recognize good when they see it. Hence their boredom and avoidance of most modern art or postmodern novels.

    So, the correlation is pretty high.

  5. What does "Heathers" have to do with jump in movies viewed per capita in 1989? It was box-office failure; its U.S. gross was barely half its $2m budget.

    If you want to make sense of your attendence figures, you need to look at the top-grossing movies for each year. For 1989:

    251,185,407 Batman (1989)
    197,171,806 Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
    147,253,986 Lethal Weapon 2 (1989)
    140,088,813 Look Who's Talking (1989)
    130,724,200 Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989)
    118,500,000 Back to the Future Part II (1989)
    112,494,738 Ghostbusters II (1989)
    109,859,444 The Little Mermaid (1989)
    106,593,296 Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
    100,047,830 Parenthood (1989)

    Yup, real quality there.

    intellectual pariah

  6. You failed to provide comparisons for other years (as well as accounting for inflation), so that list is irrelevant to tracking change over time in quality of movies.

    The reference to Heathers was to show that teen movies made in the early and later part of the '80s were good, while those in the middle part were bad.

    If you weren't illiterate, you would've already figured that out.

  7. I'm not interested in whether 1989 was a particularly good or bad year in movies (though, impressionistically, it looks pretty dire).

    My point was that your argument (movie attendance correlates with movie quality) misses a key factor. You haven't shown that the good movies you mention were responsible for pushing up movie attendance, or that the bad movies pushed it down. They didn't, either way. The teen-comedy genre, while popular, were never huge contributors to overall box office. And within the genre, the mid-80s John Hughes movies were among the most popular.

    As I mentioned, Heathers (1989) was commercial flop (US gross $1m). Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1981) did reasonably well ($27m), but its impact on the total box office for 1981 was negligible compared to, say, Raiders of the Lost Ark ($245m).

    John Hughes's mid-80s movies also did well. The Breakfast Club (1984) got $46m; Pretty in Pink (1985) got $40m. Sixteen Candles (1986) was weaker ($24m). Inflation affects these figures, but not the overall picture.

    So your correlation between tickets sold and movie quality is spurious, at least on the examples you present.



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