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A Record, but With Qualifiers

Box Office* The $8-billion mark is topped for the first time, but admissions remain flat.

January 07, 2002|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's now official: 2001 was the largest-grossing year ever at North American movie theaters, the first time the motion picture industry topped the $8-billion level in admissions.

The big hits were bigger, with six releases topping the $200-million mark: "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" (which just crossed the $300-million mark), "Shrek," "Monsters, Inc." "Rush Hour 2," "The Mummy Returns" and, over the past weekend, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring."

The previous high was four, in 1999, the year of "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," "The Sixth Sense" and the sequels to "Toy Story" and "Austin Powers."

While the major studio blockbusters received more than their share of media attention, the studios exerted damage control over the year's major duds, which came and went without the kind of ballyhoo that tarnished such classic catastrophes as "Ishtar" and "Heaven's Gate," though those flops cost as much (adjusted for inflation) as some of this year's flops, such as "Monkeybone," "Town and Country," "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," "Driven" and "The Majestic," all of which had sticker prices of at least $70 million.

Curiously, more was written about the relative disappointment of "Pearl Harbor," a three-hour war movie that ended up grossing $450 million around the world, the kind of disappointment every studio wishes it had on a more regular basis.

According to EDI/Nielsen, which started its calculations on Jan. 5, 2001, the year ended up with $8.13 billion in gross receipts, whereas the competing tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, which calculates starting on Jan. 1, is reporting $8.35 billion.

Almost two-thirds of the increased revenue from 2001 came from the top 10 releases, which often debuted on more than 5,000 screens.

Nonetheless, ticket sales remained flat. EDI calculates admissions at slightly below the 1998 record of 1.44 billion tickets, while Exhibitor Relations tags it slightly above, with 1.49 billion. The average ticket price was calculated at $5.60, up 20 cents from the previous year.

According to EDI President Tom Borys, admissions have remained generally flat for many years now and aren't expected to vary much in the future; the American and Canadian public's moviegoing patterns are pretty much set. Future gains in revenue for the industry, he says, will therefore come from higher ticket prices, foreign box office and the increasingly lucrative after-life of video, television and, more recently, DVD sales.

The advent of the megaplex in the mid-1990s was supposed to provide more theaters for more movies. But while some of these complexes house as many as 20 auditoriums, it's rare for there to be more than a half-dozen movies playing at a given time, particularly in summer and during the holidays, the movie industry's best seasons.

The stronger performers, such as "Harry Potter" or "Planet of the Apes," are often allotted more than one-third of those screens, which accounts for their gigantic opening weekend takes--and, often, their precipitous second weekend drops. Gone are the days when wary patrons sat out the first one or two weeks of a hit film's run because of long lines. Multiplexes can now accommodate as much business as a film can manage its first weekend simply by shifting lesser movies out and offering a maximum number of seats and staggered showtimes for the weekend's hit title.

The public's romance with 2001's "event" movies was thus passionate and immediate, but usually short-lived. Even the biggest movie of the year, "Harry Potter," did about one-third of its business in the first five days of release.

But the "one weekend" theory of filmgoing is somewhat misleading. The maxim "If you blitz advertise it, they will come" didn't prevent some lesser-hyped movies from slipping into theaters and building a loyal following in later weeks--diverse titles such as "Memento," "The Others," "Legally Blonde," "The Princess Diaries" and "Bridget Jones's Diary." Movie audiences still like to "discover" movies and tell their friends.

"The specialized film actually did quite well this year," says Borys, who mentions that two of last year's late arrivals, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Traffic," actually did more than 90% of their business in 2001.

Notably, family films were the best performers in 2001--five of the six movies that grossed $200 million were family titles. With increasing pressure from Washington, studios assiduously trimmed films to avoid the R rating and many theaters more stringently policed ticket-buyers younger than age 17. As a result, says Borys, only 27% of admissions were for R-rated films this year, compared to 35% in 2000. Just two of the 20 top-grossing films, "Hannibal" and "American Pie 2," carried an R rating.

The summer season, when about 40% of tickets are sold, was a standout, with 14 of the year's top 20 movies coming from May to early September.

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