Cinema-going in 2005
Has it just been a hiccup? This is what observers are wondering as they look at the 2005 cinema-going figures compared to the previous decade but, most of all, with a view to the coming years.
More or less throughout the world, 2005 was characterised by a negative trend: what allows us to hope that it has been an isolated phenomenon, is the general recovery experienced over the last few months which, whilst not managing to improve the overall fortunes of the year, has helped make the drop in audiences less weighty. Europe in general has been no exception: here, too, as in the United States but also Australia or Japan, fewer tickets have been sold. On average the nineteen countries in Western Europe have dropped back 10.6%. All together they have, in fact, lost over 100 million spectators, falling from 962 in 2004 to a little under 860. Moreover, 80 of these 100 million tickets have been lost – though to varying degrees – on the Continent’s five largest markets: France, United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy.
The fifteen countries of Central-Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean Rim have suffered still more, dropping from 113 million tickets to around 93, with a 17.7% drop.
It is nonetheless true that 2004, as was emphasised at the time, was – especially in some countries – an exceptional year, recording considerable increases. Consequently, as far as Western Europe is concerned, 2005 can be re-interpreted by distinguishing between markets that have nevertheless maintained part of the spectators gained between 2003 and 2004 – or at least seen figures around those of the initial years of the new millennium – and those that, instead, have reverted to the figures of the ‘Nineties. To the second group belong, first and foremost, the three countries that share the most serious drops recorded in Western Europe, around (or even above) -20%. These are Liechtenstein, Austria and Germany, the latter – with a loss of almost 30 million tickets compared to 2004 – experiencing its lowest figures since 1995.
In a similar situation, though with a less serious drop, comes another of the five big Western European markets – Spain – which closes 2005 with just over 127 million tickets, leaving behind 16 million spectators compared to 2004 (-11.3%). The Country had not fallen below the 130-million-ticket mark since 1999.
Following the same trend come smaller countries, such as Portugal (-16.2%), Luxemburg (-14.7%), Switzerland (-13.1%), Sweden (-12.1%), Finland (-12%), The Netherlands (-11.2%), Belgium (-9.2%) and Norway (-5.4%). The countries that stand up better to the overall drop range from a large market, such as the United Kingdom (-3.3%), to Ireland (-5%): both, despite the loss of audiences, achieve one of the best results of the third millennium. In spite of a 9.3% drop, Italy manages to maintain larger audiences than in 2003, together with France (-10.8%) and Denmark (-4.7%) which equal, or almost equal, the 2003 result.
Various hypotheses have been advanced as to the reason for the negative results in 2005. Some regard long-term phenomena outside the realm of the cinema offer in a strict sense, such as changes in leisure habits, the establishment of alternative channels for viewing films (for example dvd, the circulation of which is facilitated by shorter windows) or piracy. Other explanations emphasise more the quality of the films released during the year, less able – particularly those from the United States – to draw the general public into cinemas. Amongst those who seem to favour the latter hypothesis is John Fithian, President of Nato (the United States exhibitors’ association) who, when commenting on 2005 in the Usa – closing at -8.7%, yet still considered one of the best years of the last decade – observes that the cyclical trend is a typical characteristic of cinema-going.
The fact that a handful of films with international appeal, accompanied in the more fortunate countries – such as Italy, for example – by a number of high-quality or widely appealing domestic productions, succeeded in bringing millions of spectators back into the cinemas in the last four months of 2005, seems to give credit to the hypothesis more closely linked to the characteristics of the films themselves and brings with it some hope for the future.
What trend emerges from the initial months of 2006?
The signs received from the initial months of 2006 are reassuring for a position of cautious optimism. If at the end of May 2006 in Spain and in the United Kingdom – a country that had closed 2005 with a drop limited to 3.3% – audiences proved to have dropped by about 1% compared to the same period the previous year, other countries have recorded a positive trend. This is the case, for the tickets sold in the first five months of the year, in Italy (where Cinetel speaks of +12% but foresees even 16% by the end of June), as well as in France (+22% according to the CNC) and in Turkey (+23%). Germany follows along the same lines (+15% in the first four months), whilst an even more flattering increase – although only for the first three months – is recorded in Poland (+84%), the largest market in Central-Eastern Europe, which, however, suffered a disastrous 2005 (-29% compared to 2004).
Which films have played a leading role in these few months, apart from the ever-present Da Vinci Code? A fair number of blockbusters made in the USA, such as Mission: Impossible III and X-Men The Last Stand. The United Kingdom, for example, owes the audience successes achieved in May to these three titles. And then there are Ice Age 2: The Meltdown, The Omen and Poseidon. Without wishing to detract in any way from the huge popular appeal of these productions, Hollywood’s tendency to rely on relatively few film “events” for its success, does seem to be confirmed. Also following this trend are Pirates of The Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest and Superman Returns, expected in the next few weeks, just before Cars. On this scenario the role of domestic films stands out, particularly in those countries with a greater production capacity. In France the market share of the Hexagon’s productions has risen above 49%, thanks mainly to Les Bronzés 3, which drew over 10 million spectators, but also Camping (4.7) and Je Vous Trouve Très Beau (3.5). In Poland two romantic comedies sold over 3 million tickets.
Three domestic titles are also to be found at the top in Turkey: in first place Valley of The Wolves: Iraq, the much-discussed blockbuster accused of anti-Americanism which, with over 4 million tickets sold at home and wide international circulation – especially in Germany, Belgium and France –, is the real “event” of 2006. In Spain, instead, the slight dip in ticket sales up to the end of May can perhaps be explained by weak domestic films which draw a total of only about 5 million spectators, compared to over 7 in the same period in 2005 (-32%). The only positive exception is the result obtained by Volver, which alone won over 1.8 million spectators.
As regards Europe as a whole, it remains difficult to make predictions as to the continuation of 2006. Amongst the factors with most impact are certainly the World Soccer Championships, to which, however, the domestic markets seem to be reacting differently. In Germany, for example, a huge number of releases – as many as 28 – came out before the first kick-off, all aiming to avoid competition with the ball games, whilst France, which is, however, losing spectators to the World Championships (-21% compared to the same week in 2005), is keeping the appointment with the Fête du Cinéma, in the hope that these three days crowded with new releases will manage to emerge relatively unscathed, as indeed happened in 1998 and 2002, in the duel with the great sport event.

Elisabetta Brunella