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ROBERT EPSTEIN

When Times Are Tough Do People Seek Entertainment? : An informal survey finds that in the past five years home video receipts went way up, the audience for the symphony stayed pretty stable and the number of moviegoers declined.

April 03, 1993|ROBERT EPSTEIN

If heads were all that counted in the grand sweep of American entertainment and arts, then the motion picture business would be in serious trouble . . . well, maybe.

The movies are losing their ticket buyers, the only category to experience negative numbers in our informal study of what was going on at cash registers and box offices over the past five years--years of economic recession and seemingly years of canceled concerts, disappearing companies and shrunken budgets.

How bad has it been? How good?

There's no misery index here, just our own Head Count Index . . . the search for life before it hits the bottom line.

In most cases we bracketed the past five years and randomly selected the following entertainment/arts areas:

Movies; television, broadcast and cable; home video; theater; symphony orchestras; rock concerts.

Are we better off in 1992 than we were five years ago? Yes, if all you do is count heads. Our survey generally asked just two questions: How many people lined up at box offices and cash registers, and how much did they spend?

The only entertainers scoring a negative were Hollywood studios, which apparently continue to lose their "out-of-home" audience.

In 1987, 1.08 billion movie theater tickets were sold, according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Five years later, the figure dipped to 964.2 million buyers, a certain trend in loss in audience. (Movie ticket buyers have been dwindling for years, from a peak of 4 billion post-World War II and pre-TV.)

But while the number of moviegoers dipped 1%, the number of dollars that came to the box office rose 1%, from 1987's $4.25 billion to 1992's $4.87 billion. The reason: The average ticket price went from $3.91 five years ago to last year's $5.05, a 25% rise averaged across the country. At the same time, the number of screens increased from 23,555 in 1987 to 25,105 last year in an obvious effort to find more ticket buyers, wherever they may be.

No need to cry for Hollywood, though. The relatively youngish home-video business still honors old movies. It has made a unique contribution to Hollywood liquidity, becoming the first Head Count Index champion with percentages of growth hitting two and three digits.

In 1987, according to Paul Kagan Associates Inc., video rentals totaled $5.25 billion and sales were $1.1 billion. Last year rentals went to $8.25 billion and sales grew to $3.74 billion. While five years ago only 64 million videos were sold, last year the number hit 264.5 million. The number of cassettes rented went from 2.44 million to 3.57 million in the five-year period.

Hollywood studios reap additional fortunes too from television, another pit-stop for theatrical movies.

While television households, according to Paul Kagan Associates, increased a measly 4% from 1987 to 1992, the more impressive numbers were delivered by cable, which five years ago was a mere teen-ager compared to the more mature broadcasters. Cable moved from 42.6 million households to 55.2 million last year with the premium--pay movie--channels growing 17% in the five-year period, another clear-cut indication where the audiences were going.

Now back to the more traditional box offices.

Symphony orchestras, according to the American Symphony Orchestra League Inc., saw their ticket sales grow during the past five years, from $184.5 million to $274 million, but the audience numbers remained almost stationary, from 25 million in the 1986-87 period to 26.7 million in the 1990-91 season, hardly keeping up with the population, which grows at approximately 9% between census periods.

Rock concerts had a healthier glow. According to Pollstar surveys, rock concerts featuring major arena headliners cracked the $1-billion figure last year, up from 1987's $620 million. No head count was available but a Pollstar analyst said that ticket prices, like movie ticket prices, had increased significantly in the past five years, accounting in large part for the 60% healthier box-office report.

The Head Count Index for theaters was more a good news/bad news situation. National Endowment for the Arts figures show that Broadway box office only went up 6% in the past five years but road show companies more than doubled, going from $222 million in ticket sales to $450 million last year.

Business may be static on Broadway but something is happening across the country: the growth of new suburban performance arenas and the spread of people away from urban centers, along with resistance to the high ticket prices of first-run productions.

Almost everywhere the Head Count Index went up in the past five tough years, a tribute to loyal audiences, marketing schemes and, of course, the post-baby boomer birthrate.

Most receipts went up too, despite some fatalities along the way, canceled concerts, failed movie companies, delayed cable networks and faltering broadcasters.

Where the Index registered small gains, you have to wonder if a peak was reached--as with television households--or a fearful trend is developing--as with symphony audiences.

You have to wonder, next time around, what new categories will there be to rate.

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