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Memorial Day Weekend Box Office Bust: What Happened?

Tuesday, 1 Jun 2010 | 12:57 PM ET
Hollywood
Hollywood

Hollywood's strong box office run so far this year came to a screeching halt Memorial Day weekend, as movies' theatrical performance fell off a cliff.

The holiday weekend, usually a big popcorn blockbuster-fest, fell far short of prior years and disappointed industry expectations.

The total box office number for the four-day weekend was just $186 million, the lowest since 2001. And that was bolstered by higher-priced 3-D tickets and inflation: the total numbers of tickets sold was the lowest since 1993. That's not just bad news for the studios hopeful to capitalize on familiar brands, it's also bad for the theater companies, like Imax and Regal, hoping to pack theaters and sell buckets of popcorn.

What went wrong?

Higher prices for 3-D movie tickets - some $3 higher than regular 2-D on average make moviegoers think twice before investing in an excursion for the family. Travel and tourism have started to rebound, and when people are road-tripping they're not escaping to a fictional world on the silver screen. The weather was beautiful throughout the northeast, sending people outside rather than to the comfort of theaters. The NBA and NHL finals, with some major teams in play, offered a free entertainment alternative at home.

But at the end of the day, the box office starts and ends with the movies - and Americans weren't so pleased with their options. Sex & The City 2 was bashed by critics, saying that it neither had the "sex" nor the "city" (much of it was set in the Middle East) of the first film. The jokes were slammed as tired and cliché. Time Warner's New Linespent $95 million to make the sequel, up from $65 million for the original. The film grossed $51.1 million in its first four days, and it's well positioned to have huge foreign performance and be quite profitable - but it's still a massive disappointment after the first film set a new standard for women to drive theatrical hits.

Disney's "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" fell far short of the stellar track record of producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Bruckheimer may be the biggest movie producer of all time, but despite a massive $200 million budget and name recognition of the video game it's based on, the film grossed just $37.8 million worldwide. The film's ending leaves the window open for a sequel - indicating hope for a franchise like "Pirates of the Caribbean," but after this disappointing performance we shouldn't expect to see any more of this title.

With all this attention on disappointing debut weekend performance, the big winner may be a proverbial tortoise - Dreamworks Animation's "Shrek forever After" held up remarkably well. Without any direct competition for the family and kids audience, the film topped the weekend, showing a smaller decline from its first to second weekend than the prior Shrek film. It's following in the trend of the studio's March film "How to Train Your Dragon," which has amassed an impressive $448 million worldwide gross despite a weak, disappointing debut.

There's no need to write off the summer just yet - the box office could very well rebound to the 10 percent advance over last year it was logging until just recently. Expectations are huge for films like Disney's "Toy Story 3" and much-anticipated "Inception" from Warner Brothers and writer/director Christopher Nolan. With all the other factors at play - from the economy to weather - it'll still come down to whether or not the films work.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

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  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.