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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Hollywood Box Office News Is Boffo

Movies: Gloomy forecasts aside, U.S. ticket sales may set a record this year and top $8 billion.

November 11, 2001|CLAUDIA ELLER and JAMES BATES | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In the days and weeks following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, experts predicted that Americans would stay "cocooned" at home in front of their television sets and watch scores of videos.

But so many people kept going to the movies that Hollywood is now poised to set a box office record of more than $8 billion in annual ticket sales.

Despite ongoing terrorist and anthrax scares and a marked downturn in the economy, moviegoing has been up each weekend since the attacks except one.

Movie admissions, which have remained relatively flat over the last decade, could finish at levels not seen since the 1940s, an era that lacked today's competition from broadcast and cable television, satellite dishes and home video viewing.

To date, box office revenue is up 9.6% from last year to $6.57 billion, with less than half that increase caused by ticket price hikes.

Hollywood is banking on a blockbuster holiday season--kicked off by last weekend's record debut of the Pixar/Walt Disney Co. animated hit "Monsters, Inc." and an expected windfall next weekend from Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone"--to shatter last year's record of $7.7 billion.

"The record box office reflects the fact that the movies this year really clicked with audiences," said Paramount Pictures Chairwoman Sherry Lansing. "Once you have a satisfying experience with a movie, it only increases your appetite to see another one, and that's what caused people to go again and again and again."

A record year would be a big shot in the arm for the nation's financially beleaguered theater chains, a dozen of which have been mired in bankruptcy proceedings.

Their problems were largely caused by overbuilding multiplexes while losing business at their aging, less profitable theaters. Increased attendance is the key to turning around the theaters, which split ticket sales with the studios but reap all the profit from sales of popcorn, candy and soft drinks.

Still, the attacks did alter Hollywood's movie slate and affect box office receipts. Three films scheduled for release this year with terrorist-related themes--the Warner Bros. movie "Collateral Damage" and Walt Disney Co.'s "Bad Company" and "Big Trouble"--were bumped into 2002 out of concern that it would be inappropriate to release them so soon after the tragedy. The movies represent a total of more than $200 million invested in production and marketing.

In the days after the Sept. 11 attacks, many pundits predicted that people would be terrified to venture out of their homes, even to go to their local theaters. As trend guru Faith Popcorn, who coined the term cocooning, put it: "People are holing up."

But that hasn't been the case. Last weekend saw the biggest gold rush when "Monsters, Inc." grossed $63 million--a record for the debut of an animated film.

Studio executives and theater owners say the last two months show that the industry's age-old rules still apply: Movies are appealing because they are a relatively inexpensive form of entertainment, provide a convenient place for young people to date and, most important, customers will keep turning out to see popular films.

The turnout also reflects continued moviegoing by teenagers, who are less likely than adults to stay home because of news events.

"I always said that, after the sensitivity wore off, people were not going to stay umbilically connected to some box in their living room," said Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti.

Tom Borys, president of the AC Nielsen/EDI box office tracking service, predicts that if the current pace continues, the nation's box office will soar at least 10% to a record $8.2 billion by year's end. In addition, admissions could hit 1.5 billion, a level not seen in decades.

Attendance previously peaked at more than 1.5 billion in pretelevision 1944. That year, Hollywood released more than 1,500 films to a war-weary public eager for escape, including such classics as the Oscar-winning "Going My Way" with Bing Crosby, "Double Indemnity" starring Barbara Stanwyck and the Judy Garland musical "Meet Me in St. Louis."

Still, big box office isn't always synonymous with quality. This year, movie critics panned some of the biggest hits, including "Planet of the Apes" and "Pearl Harbor."

The estimates for 2001 could turn out to be conservative, Borys said, with one of the biggest films in years lurking in "Harry Potter." The movie is scheduled to open Friday as the widest release ever on almost 8,000 screens in more than 3,500 theaters across the nation.

The November-December holiday season is the second most lucrative moviegoing period of the year after summer. Holiday receipts generally represent from 20% to 25% of the year's revenues, compared with 35% to 40% for the summer months.

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