2010 closed as the second highest-grossing year of all time, but it still couldn't shake an air of disappointment. Not only did 2010 end with a whimper, estimated attendance was the lowest in 15 years.
The box office tally for 2010 was $10.57 billion, or around $30 million shy of 2009. That translated to an estimated attendance of 1.27 billion, which was off eight percent from 2009. 1995 was the last year to have sub-1.3 billion attendance. Since the modern attendance peak in 2002 (1.58 billion), attendance has been trending downward, but 2010 marked the second severe drop-off, following 2005.
In December, 2010 lost its slight gross edge over 2009. At $882 million, December 2010 was not only relatively low-grossing but also the least-attended December since 1993. With half-hearted attempts to recreate past December successes (Yogi Bear aping Chipmunks, Gulliver's Travels copying Night at the Museum, Little Fockers chasing Meet the Fockers), it was another month of missed opportunities. The only months in 2010 to decisively out-gross their 2009 counterparts were January, March, April and July, while normally big months May, November and December were particularly weak.
Hollywood often failed to offer an appealing slate of movies, and there were fewer movies made available than before. In 2010, 141 movies reached nationwide release (600 locations or more), down from 158 in 2009 and the smallest number since 2001.
The top-grossing movie of 2010 was a holdover from 2009: Avatar, which made $476.9 million of its $760.5 million lifetime total in 2010. The last time the top movie was from the previous year was in 1998, when Titanic dominated. One difference is that 1998 was a bigger year than 1997.
Toy Story 3 was the second-biggest movie in 2010, drawing $415 million. Alice in Wonderland ($334.2 million), Iron Man 2 ($312.4 million) and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse ($300.5 million) rounded out the Top Five. Those top movies accounted for $1.84 billion or 17.4 percent of the 2010 pie, whereas the Top Five in 2009 made $1.57 billion with a 14.8 percent share. 2010's Top Ten, which included titans like Inception ($292.6 million), Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 ($280.2 million) and Despicable Me ($251.1 million), tallied $3.12 billion, versus the $2.69 billion of 2009's Top Ten. 2010's list only began to run out of steam compared to 2009 at No. 11. That meant 2010 was a top-heavy year, further reflected in the fact that 25 movies made $100 million or more, compared to 32 in 2009.
The industry again relied on sequels, but sequels only go so far. Both 2010 and 2009 had about the same amount of sequels, and sequel business was steady: $2.62 billion in 2010 versus $2.67 billion in 2009. Each year had five sequels in the Top Ten, and each year had sequels accounting for around 25 percent of the overall box office. However, though movies like How to Train Your Dragon and Clash of the Titans will get sequels, the industry mostly failed at creating new franchises (nonstarters included Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), and 2011 will further rely on former glories.
Two areas saw growth in 2010, and both were intertwined. Animation business was up 16 percent over 2009 to $1.49 billion, while movies presented in the 3D illusion surged to $3.27 billion (an estimated $2.1 billion of which from 3D alone). All of the major animated titles of 2010 were shown in 3D, and the industry shoved 3D down people's throats in the wake of Avatar's success, adding enough screens to the point in December when several movies had simultaneous nationwide 3D runs.
All those 3D movies contributed to the gross, but they boiled down to more money from fewer people. The 3D premiums alone (the differences between 3D and regular ticket prices) accounted for an estimated $600 million of the total box office.