Michael Cieply's recent piece in the Times on the 2011 box office misses something obvious. He writes about how the top movies were all sequels and that audiences seemed to be seeking out the "familiar" as if we were seeking what he called cinematic "comfort food" for these anxious times.
From my perspective, Cieply misses the point: it's not comfort food that sequels create. It's an EVENT. With most new films that are not related to a previous work, whether a famous book, a TV show or a previous film, there's not a great deal of anticipation or expectation that's going to make for a huge opening weekend. Instead, people come in with curiosity and the film builds word of mouth if it's worth seeing.
These days, with Netflix, illegal downloading, and cable, there's little reason to spend the $13 on the multiplex unless it's an event. Something coming to cinemas that's built up a reputation. Sex and the City: the movie. Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (but not at Christmas- STUPID release time for a grisly action thriller! Should have been Halloween.) Or something new from those known for a Midas Touch, which these days for the 21-39 year old generation includes Christopher Nolan, and Pixar, among others.
An event is something worth waiting outside in the cold for midnight tickets. It's something that you'll be able to gloat over being the first to have seen. That's what's happening in the video game market, where people line up outside for hours to be the first one to play GTA 4 or other games. It's not about comfort food: it's about excitement and anticipation, which is much harder to build with films not based on any kind of previously famous work.