A strong fall and winter box office initiated by Meet the Parents and finished off in style by The Grinch and Castaway allowed Hollywood to set yet another record with a total box office take of just over $7.7 billion. But like the false fa?ade of a western set, this record, based as it is on higher ticket prices, is strictly for show. The actual number of tickets sold in 2000 declined an estimated 2%, while the industry's foreign take fell to $6.6 billion. Without a Star Wars or even a Blair Witch Project to spur sales, licensed movie merchandise purchases plummeted precipitously. Battlefield Earth and Titan A.E. were on-screen disasters with merchandise that was strictly DOA. The X-Men movie, which brought in $157.3 million as the sixth highest grossing film of the year could only drive the X-Men toys as high as #3 and #4 on the Toy Manufacturers Association sales charts in July and August.
While there was little growth evidenced in the exhibition and licensing areas, the post-theatrical earnings of films continued to increase. For example the X-Men movie has done extremely well on video and DVD, earning over $60 million in combined sales and rentals during its first week. An argument could easily be made the Disney's Tarzan was actually the top grossing movie of 2000, since it earned $268 million in video sales compared with The Grinch's total 2000 box office take of $253 million. Sell-through video has long since come of age, and there is a vibrant collector market, which is in the midst of converting from videotape and laser disc to DVD and creating more sales in the process; video and DVD sales and rentals rose to an astounding $20 billion in 2000, nearly three times the total box office gross. This huge revenue stream is the target of the various Hollywood guilds, who are likely to strike in the summer of 2001.
Disney narrowly nudged out Universal for the top spot among studios in the 2000 box office sweepstakes despite the fact that it had only one film (Dinosaur #9, $137.7 million) in the top ten. Universal's Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas topped the year 2000 box office list at $253.4 million. The Grinch also sold some toys during the holiday season, but the film's holiday theme means that neither it nor its licensed merchandise will have any legs in 2001. As for Dinosaur, Disney usually does a good job of print merchandising for its films though its Hyperion book division, but the lack of a trading card licensee and dearth of creative, collector-oriented toys and memorabilia represent lost opportunities for Disney, which is myopically focused on its own kitsch-ridden stores. Here is the dark, nepotistic, anti-competitive side of vertically integrated corporate 'synergy' in action.
Unfortunately some of the movies that came with well conceived licensed merchandise including toys, books, and trading cards didn't perform either at the box office or in the stores. Battlefield Earth, based as it was on a turgid L. Ron Hubbard potboiler never had a chance, while the Dungeons & Dragons movie was as dreary as its Rumanian locations. More troubling was the failure of Titan A.E., the first serious attempt at an American science fiction anime. In spite of some good reviews, Titan A.E. never even came close to earning back its enormous cost at the box office. In fact, the film's failure caused Fox to close its animation studio, while the excellent toys and trading cards produced for Titan A.E. never got the sales they deserved.It's too early to know exactly how far the sales of movie merchandise in 2000 declined, but the trend is clearly downward. In the end the most troubling part is not the failure of box office bombs to move merchandise, but the mediocre performance of items from hit movies like the X-Men. Even Star Wars, the colossus of movie merchandising vehicles, demonstrated a weakening of its stellar merchandising power with Episode I. Is this a reaction to the tidal wave of fast-food promotions and licensed toys that accompany almost every over-hyped cinema blockbuster, or is it perhaps that collectors who want to recall their favorite action film can now simply pop in a DVD? Stay tuned.