Not sure which side of this to put more stock in.
The reality is likely both, depending on the quality of the movie. People showed a clear preference for good movies that received wider distribution based on positive word of mouth early in the winter, with that building and continuing into January and February. But that means they had less tolerance (and money) for the middling material the studios put out.
That’s a broad statement and there are surely other things going on that influence how the box-office races have turned out, but when you look at the macro trends it’s clear that people were more willing to take the recommendations of their friends to go see something good than they were to settle on something just because it’s what happens to be playing that weekend.
Ryan Lawler has a great take on a recent Forbes piece about the over-commercialization of movies, with more choices being made based on how built-in the audience is to the property that’s being developed. What’s interesting to note is that, while certainly not wrong, that Forbes piece is undone by the popularity of largely original movies in 2010, though it’s hard to argue with it looking at the 2011 release calendar.