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Why Did Hollywood Earn Less in 2011 Than 2010? Hint: The Movies

Slate’s Dave Weigel noted that 2011’s box office earnings are on pace to be $1 billion below 2010’s. True to (snarky) form, he tweeted:

Which made me wonder: is there a correlation between the quality of this year’s movies and the reduced earnings?

Yes, there is.

Using data from BoxOfficeMojo.com, I looked at the weekly top-grossing movies and cross-referenced them with their scores from Rotten Tomatoes.

I found that the most popular movies in 2011 were, on average, 5.5 points worse than 2010’s (61.8 versus 56.2). But the median score – that is, the number above and below which half of the movies’ scores fell – was 9 points lower in 2011, 67 to 58. In other words, the bad movies were worse.

Here’s what that looks like as a trend line over the course of each year.

Rotten Tomato scores for top-grossing films, by week

The only period during which 2011 was doing better was in the late summer – and that’s almost entirely due to The Help. Without The Help‘s four-week run, the average score for the year would have been a point-and-a-half lower.

By Rotten Tomatoes’ own metric of “rottenness,” which a movie achieves with a score less than 60, rotten movies led the pack 24 weeks last year, compared with 25 this year. But bear in mind – we still have several weeks left.

It’s worth noting, though, that receipts in general were down. The top 12-grossing movies each week earned $13 million less on average in 2011 than in 2010 – accounting for half a billion dollars in drop-off alone.

One final note. There is a correlation between having a lower-quality movie leading the box office and more money in ticket sales. In other words, during weeks in which a rotten movie led in receipts, theaters on the whole took in $5 million more on average in 2010. In 2011, it was $8 million.

2011’s top movies were worse and movies on the whole took in less money. But the worse the top movie, the more theaters earned. In other words, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

Oh, and movie studios. We can also blame them.

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