The Glorious Year Before the Internet Ransacked Hollywood

A dismal U.S. box office this summer might be triggering some industry nostalgia for 2002.

New Line Cinema

Hollywood is experiencing one of its worst summers at the U.S. box office in years, providing us with a perfect opportunity to look back at happier times.

Many consider 1939 to be Hollywood’s “golden year”—the year of Gone With the WindThe Wizard of Oz, and Stagecoach. But in financial terms, 2002 is the record year for gross ticket sales at the U.S. box office (based on Box Office Mojo data, which goes back to 1982, and converted to inflation-adjusted dollars using the BLS inflation calculator). In nominal terms, 2013 was a record year at the U.S. box office.

U.S. Box Office Grosses by Year (Adjusted for Inflation) 

On a scale of $14 billion (*to date) (Data: Box Office Mojo, BLS Calculator)

The hit movies of 2002 included Tobey Maguire’s Spider-Man, and installments of the Star WarsLord of the Rings, and Harry Potter franchises. There were plenty of other cinematic highlights. The rapper Eminem made a movie, and it was actually quite good. Hugely talented writers and directors like M. Night Shyamalan (Signs) and Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation) were arguably at the peak of their creative powers.

A lot has changed since then. The Internet has basically transformed the entire global economy, and theatrical films are no exception. Netflix has morphed from a DVD rental company into streaming-video giant. Movies are now available on demand, relatively shortly after their release, through iTunes, Amazon, and pay TV companies, giving Americans an easy excuse to stay home rather than go to the cinema.

This past June and July, typically two of the strongest months for movie attendances in the U.S., were absolutely dismal at the box office. According to Box Office Mojo, gross ticket sales in dollar terms fell by 20 percent and 43 percent respectively. Hyped comedies such as Sex Tape completely flopped, and a number of high-profile sequels (Hollywood’s favorite low-risk formula for making money) also failed to surpass the returns achieved by their predecessors. August has been better, but it almost certainly won’t be enough to make up for earlier in the American summer.

This is actually not as bad for film studios as it sounds. As I wrote earlier this year, the big studios are making an increasing share of their money from international audiences, where box-office returns are growing strongly (70 percent of total box-office receipts in 2013 were from international markets).

And crucially, next summer is expected to be particularly strong inside the U.S. and internationally. With installments from three bankable, blockbuster franchises (Star Wars, Superman/Batman, and the Hunger Games) all on the docket, some are tipping 2015 to be a record year for the industry.

Whether it can scale the heights of 2002 remains to be seen. But Hollywood is typically confident. “Next summer will be the biggest box-office summer in history,” X-Men producer Simon Kinberg told The Hollywood Reporter, “and nobody will be worrying about the business.”