This was a year of hard lessons. Movie attendance and ticket sales fell. Television shows struggled and died. Book publishers faced an electronic future. And through it all, some great works of the imagination thrived. What did 2010 teach us?
1. Ruling Comic Con doesn't guarantee a winning box office. The writing's been on the wall for a long time, but now it's totally legible. San Diego Comic Con is a great place to build buzz for a new movie or TV series, but it doesn't guarantee anything. (We posted a list of films in years past that wowed the Hall H crowds and bombed at the box office here.) This year, films that were like catnip to Comic Con-goers but failed at the box office included Scott Pilgrim, Kick-Ass, Skyline, and Let Me In. And then there's Tron Legacy — which hasn't done as badly as those other films, but seems unlikely to make back its $170 million budget in the U.S. – Tron Legacy was greenlit after Hall H went nuts for a test video in 2008, and was heavily pimped at SDCC 2009 and 2010, but still failed to do as well, in its first two weekends, as last year's Sherlock Holmes.* Tron Legacy wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Comic Con, but it couldn't ride that SDCC love to box office nirvana. (Plus, we came away from SDCC 2010 with the impression that people were pretty excited about The Event.)
* – Yes, we know Tron Legacy will make back its money overseas, but domestic gross still matters, or Prince of Persia would be considered a huge hit. And we know there was a blizzard, although that didn't affect the movie's opening weekend.
2. Supervillains are the new hotness. Hollywood has been nuts for superheroes for a while, but this was arguably the year of the supervillain. Two of the year's biggest animated movies, Despicable Me and Mega-Mind, were about masterminds who grow as people over the course of a movie. And the best part of Iron Man 2, the part everybody's still raving about, was Mickey Rourke's turn as Whiplash. Meanwhile, one of the most buzzed about comic book runs this year was Paul Cornell's stint on Action Comics, which put Lex Luthor front and center.
3. 3D doesn't guarantee anything. After Avatar earned the GDP of several Eastern European countries, and then Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans both did surprisingly well, Hollywood seemed to think 3D could make any movie a hit, regardless of quality. It couldn't. Otherwise, we'd be marveling at the awesome success of Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore, Piranha 3D, Resident Evil: Afterlife, Alpha and Omega, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole and Yogi Bear, among others. Showing a movie in 3D allows you to charge more for tickets, but that only helps if people actually show up. And we've learned the hard way that a lot of the time, 3D doesn't add much to a movie — even if it was filmed in 3D instead of being converted afterwards. Bottom line: a good movie might make more money in 3D, but it won't help a bad or indifferent movie.
4. Television is where a lot of the most mind-bending storytelling happens. For every Inception in the movie theaters, there were shows like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, and many others. In speculative fiction, we had the tail end of Lost, a show that proved that you could confound your viewers — and they would continue to watch, in crazy numbers. This year, True Blood skated past being a hit and became a bona fide institution, and The Walking Dead became one of the fall's most talked-about shows. And Fringe, despite less-than-awesome ratings, finally took its place as one of the all-time great science fiction sagas — and a critical hit, judging by how many people are raving about it in year-end roundups like this one.
5. But television audiences just don't want scary/freaky paranoid conspiracies. At least, that seems to be the lesson from the failure of so many conspiracy/thriller/WTF shows this year. FlashForward, V, The Event and Fringe, to name just a few, all seemed to suffer from the unwillingness of Nielsen households to engage with anything where something freaky is going on and shadowy figures are telling other shadowy figures that there are even more shadowy figures in the shadows. The idea of combining science fictional ideas with the thriller/mystery/procedural genre seems like a no-brainer — both science fiction and the procedural are about uncovering the truth, after all. But whether it's that audiences don't want too much weirdness in their thrillers, or that they're sick of the evil conspiracies altogether, they just couldn't get down with the scifi mysteries.
6. Book piracy has arrived. Apple only introduced the iPad last January, but it's already become ubiquitious. And 2010 was the year that a lot of e-book holdouts got used to the idea of reading a whole book on a Kindle, a Nook or an iPad. While publishers battled over how much their new hardcovers would cost as ebooks — with the battle between Amazon and Macmillan blowing up into a public battle, with Amazon even delisting Macmillan books at one point — e-book piracy was becoming a serious concern. At the start of the year, Dan Brown's The Lost Symbol became a symbol of book piracy, with 100,000 downloads of the torrent within a few days. The most pirated ebooks of 2009 were mostly things like the Kama Sutra, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Amazing Sex, and How To Get Anyone To Say Yes — but we're betting the list for 2010 will include a lot more actual bestsellers. Piracy and pressure for cheaper e-books will continue to chip away at publishers' margins.
7. At least at the movies, people don't want a downer. For the past few years, everybody's been saying that during a shitty economy, people would want fun and escapism. But this year, movie-goers definitely seemed to punish any movie that promised a post-apocalyptic world, or a dystopian hell, or a lesson about how much people suck. The Book of Eli, Resident Evil 4, Never Let Me Go, Repo Men, Let Me In... if it was bleak or took place in a world where everything was fucked up, audiences really didn't want to know. (Of course, on television it was a different story, at least as far as The Walking Dead was concerned.)
8. But when it comes to young-adult literature, dystopias rule. After the success of the Hunger Games books and the critical acclaim of Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking trilogy, we're seeing a lot more future dystopias aimed at young adult readers. Especially notable and buzz-worthy: the Incarceron books by Catherine Fisher, and Matched by Allie Condie. Maybe younger people are more comfortable delving into the depths of nastiness when the real world is going down the tubes, or maybe book consumers are a slightly more select bunch than moviegoers, and they can still stomach a bit more nastiness. Or maybe it's because people in post-apocalyptic books have a degree of introspection and personal growth that's harder to show on a movie screen. Whatever the reason, dystopian YA books felt like a sure thing this year, even as their movie counterparts struggled.