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Box-office revenue swings up even as attendance hits a wall

The 4% increase in sales last year comes entirely from higher ticket prices.

January 04, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

Moviegoers were paying more in 2007, but that doesn't mean they were going more often.

Box-office revenue in the U.S. and Canada climbed 4% to $9.7 billion, the second straight year of higher receipts after dismal results in 2005. But the rise came entirely from costlier ticket prices. Attendance was flat, according to research firm Media by Numbers.

Moviegoers bought 1.4 billion tickets last year, the same as in 2006, despite a string of marquee sequels extending such franchises as "Spider-Man," "Shrek," "Pirates of the Caribbean" and "Harry Potter."

Studio executives and theater owners are trying to paint a positive picture in the face of fierce competition from video games, pay per view telecasts and online entertainment.

"That's a lot of people going to the cinema, given all the alternatives," said Mark Zoradi, president of Walt Disney Co.'s motion picture group.

Even so, attendance was down 12% from the modern-day peak of 1.6 billion tickets sold in 2002.

Studios report revenue, not attendance, so Media by Numbers makes its calculations based on the national average ticket price of $6.82. That doesn't reflect what most moviegoers fork over on a Friday night at the 24-plex, of course, but it takes into account the cheaper tickets in non-urban regions along with senior and child discounts and bargain matinees.

Early in 2007, the high-profile summer lineup had spurred bullish industry analysts to predict the first $10-billion year at the U.S. box office.

"People were expecting even better results based on the number of sequels," said David Corwin, president of Metropolitan Theatres Corp. in Los Angeles.

Hits including the Spartan battle epic "300" and the paunchy biker farce "Wild Hogs" got the year off to a good start, and summer lived up to expectations despite a few flops such as the big-budget comedy "Evan Almighty."

Business wilted in the fall, however, as fans showed scant interest in political fare such as the Tom Cruise-Meryl Streep drama "Lions for Lambs" and the Reese Witherspoon thriller "Rendition."

The year was saved by a trio of escapist December releases: the Will Smith science-fiction thriller "I Am Legend," the Nicolas Cage action sequel "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and the family-friendly comedy "Alvin and the Chipmunks."

Overseas, studios benefited from the global popularity of Hollywood spectacles and the weak U.S. dollar, which makes foreign receipts worth more when revenue in euros, yen and other currency is translated into greenbacks.

At Disney, for example, foreign box office totaled $1.7 billion while domestic receipts reached $1.4 billion. The company's two biggest hits, "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" and "Ratatouille," both did more than two-thirds of their business abroad.

Whether the higher box-office revenue translates into higher earnings at entertainment companies such as Disney, News Corp. and Time Warner Inc. remains to be seen.

Production costs and profit participation deals are more expensive than ever, and the DVD sales that propelled profit growth for most of this decade have also hit a wall.

In the first box-office weekend of 2008, "Treasure," "Alvin" and "Legend" could hang on to the top three rankings for the third straight time, although the quirky comedy "Juno" may crash the troika's party if it keeps zooming up the charts.

Today's only new major release is Warner Bros.' "One Missed Call," starring Shannyn Sossamon and Edward Burns in the latest Hollywood remake of a Japanese horror flick.

Disney's "Treasure" is expected to edge out 20th Century Fox's surprise blockbuster "Alvin" for No. 1, with both banking under $20 million for the weekend, according to industry executives who scrutinize consumer tracking surveys. This weekend's overall results are sure to cool from the torrid holiday season pace now that most adults are back at work and kids in school.

Warner's "Legend" could stay in third with an additional $10 million -- if it staves off Fox Searchlight's "Juno," a crossover hit whose popularity has thrust it toward the top of the Oscar contender class.

In the fifth week of its rollout, "Juno" will widen to 1,926 theaters, nearly twice as many as it was in last weekend.

The timing is right: Star Ellen Page, who plays a sassy, pregnant teenager, was scheduled to promote the film on David Letterman's late-night TV talk show Thursday, which returned this week thanks to an interim deal with striking writers.

"One Missed Call," whose PG-13 rating will help entice teenagers, is expected to open at about $6 million, landing in the bottom half of the top 10, although horror pictures have been known to surprise analysts and it faces no true competition in the genre.

Box-office trends for the rest of the year were hard to predict with fewer sequels on tap, said Corwin, whose chain has 23 locations and 116 screens.

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