LOS ANGELES – The parking's easy and there are no lines at the concession stand: Most Americans would now rather watch films at home than in theaters, according to an AP-AOL poll. At the same time, almost half think movies are getting worse.
Hollywood is in the midst of its longest box-office slump in 20 years, and 2005 is shaping up as the worst year for movie attendance in nearly a decade if theater business continues at the same lackluster rate.
In the poll released Thursday, 73 percent of adults said they preferred watching movies at home on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view. With more than two-thirds also saying movie stars are poor role models — Russell Crowe's phone-throwing being the latest example — it may take more than a blockbuster or two to reverse Hollywood's slide.
Just 22 percent said they would rather see films in a theater, according to the poll conducted by Ipsos for The Associated Press and AOL News. One-fourth said they had not been to a movie theater in the past year.
"I just prefer to stay home and watch movies," said Mark Gil, 34, a mortgage broker in Central Square, N.Y. "It's cheaper. You can go rent a movie for three bucks. By the time you're done at the movie theater with sodas and stuff, it's 20 bucks."
Films are getting worse, said 47 percent in the AP-AOL poll. A third said they were getting better.
"I don't like movies as much as I used to," said Tracy Drane, 38, a computer-technology worker who lives outside Dallas. "I'm a fan of old musicals and old AMC channel stuff. I could watch movies without thinking I'm going to see people in bed together and a lot of cussing. It has gotten much worse."
Those in the poll were most likely to be fond of comedies, followed by dramas and action-adventure movies.
Some in Hollywood think the slump — 16 straight weekends of declining revenue compared to last year — is a momentary blip due to so-so movies. They maintain the box office will rebound when better films arrive.
Others view the slide as a sign that theaters are losing ground to home-entertainment options, particularly DVDs available just months after films debut in cinemas.
But the poll found that people who use DVDs, watch pay-per-view movies on cable, download movies from the Internet and play computer games actually go to movies in theaters more than people at the same income levels who don't use those technologies. That suggests the technology may be complementing rather than competing with theatergoing. Eight in 10 in the poll said they use DVD players at home.
Through last weekend, Hollywood's domestic revenues totaled $3.85 billion, down 6.4 percent from 2004. Factoring in higher ticket prices, the number of people who have gone to theaters is down 9 percent, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
If that pace holds through year's end, admissions for 2005 would total 1.345 billion, the lowest since 1996.
The wild card from 2004 was Mel Gibson's unexpected blockbuster, "The Passion of the Christ." That film drew a huge Christian audience, many of them not regular movie-goers. Taking "The Passion" out of the mix, 2005 revenues would be up 2.9 percent over 2004, and ticket sales would be virtually unchanged.
While 2005 has produced its share of hits — among them the final "Star Wars" flick, the romance "Hitch" and the animated tales "Madagascar" and "Robots" — audiences have found Hollywood's recent offerings generally humdrum.
"I think this slump is product-driven," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "That to me is a much less chilling problem than some sort of cultural shift in people's moviegoing habits. A cultural shift takes longer than 16 weekends of down box office."
Box office revenues have been down every weekend since late February. "Batman Begins," which opened Wednesday, could snap the streak this weekend. But if business is off again, Hollywood would match a 1985 downturn of 17 weekends, the longest recorded slump since analysts began keeping detailed box-office figures.
The 1985 slide came with similar dire predictions that movies on videocassette would devastate the theater business, Dergarabedian said. Box-office grosses were stagnant into the late 1980s, then rebounded strongly.
In the 1950s, some analysts foresaw the demise of movie theaters as people stayed home to watch television. While business plummeted from 4 billion or more admissions a year in Hollywood's glory days, movies remained a prime entertainment choice.
"Going to the movies is a social event, like going to a football game, like going to the ballet, like going to a play," said George Lucas, whose "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith" is this year's biggest hit. "Something you do to be social with other people. I don't think that's ever going to go away."
From the early 1990s through 2002, box-office grosses climbed steadily as studios perfected their blockbuster marketing machines and cinema chains built new theaters with improved seating, sound systems and other amenities.
But ticket sales reached a modern peak of 1.63 billion in 2002 and have fallen since, down to 1.51 billion in 2004.
"There's certainly more competition now for entertainment dollars than there ever was before. No question there's more choices," said Bruce Snyder, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox, which released "Revenge of the Sith." "That may splinter the audience a little bit."
A handful of big hits could salvage Hollywood's year. Still to come this summer are Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise's "War of the Worlds," Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and the superhero adventure "Fantastic Four."
Even if theater business continues to erode, DVD profits could more than compensate Hollywood, a movie's theatrical run becoming something of an extended trailer for the home-video release.
DVD sales and rentals totaled $21.2 billion in 2004, more than double the domestic revenues at movie theaters, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, a trade outfit.
"Star Wars" creator Lucas figures that with digital piracy of movies a growing threat, studios eventually will release films in theaters, on DVD and online at the same time. Homebodies could watch on their big-screen systems, while fans craving a mammoth screen and a communal experience could hit the theaters.
"You'll rent it for two dollars or buy it for 10 or see it on a giant screen in a social environment and have a good time," Lucas said. "I think there will be room for all of it altogether."
The AP-AOL News poll of 1,000 adults was taken June 13-15 and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.