Chris Evans as Captain America in "The Avengers." (Zade Rosenthal / Marvel )
Batman, James Bond, teenage vampires and a team of superheroes helped propel domestic movie ticket sales in 2012 to a projected all-time high of $10.8 billion, reversing a slump that saw attendance drop to a 16-year low last year.
Box-office receipts are likely to be up 6% compared with last year, as is attendance, which is on track to hit 1.36 billion, according to Hollywood.com. That's much-needed good news for the film business, though this year's attendance figure is far from record-breaking — in 2002, 1.6 billion showed up at the box office.
Meanwhile, ticket sales from abroad continued to significantly boost bottom lines in Hollywood, because 15 of the year's top 20 pictures grossed more abroad than they did in the U.S. and Canada. For instance, 81% of the total $875 million in receipts for the 3-D animated film "Ice Age: Continental Drift" came from overseas.
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After last year's dismal domestic results, Hollywood executives were nervous about 2012. Then, a shooting at a Colorado movie theater during a screening of "The Dark Knight Rises" last summer shocked the nation and the industry, leading some to worry that crowds would shun cinemas on a long-term basis. But audiences returned, with attendance and revenue particularly strong in the fourth quarter, both up 18% over the same period in 2011.
Theater owners and distribution experts are attributing the uptick in domestic business primarily to better studio movies this year. Indeed, four of the five top-grossing films of the year — more commercially minded popcorn fare like "The Avengers," "The Dark Knight Rises," "The Hunger Games" and "Skyfall" — were critical darlings, notching an 85% positive rating or above on the film review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes. The year's fifth most popular title, "The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn — Part 2," wasn't received as positively by reviewers, but its young female fan base turned out in droves to see stars Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart in the fifth and final installment of the vampire romance.
"The old-school thought was that tent poles … didn't need good reviews, but I don't think that's the case anymore," said Richie Fay, president of domestic distribution for Lionsgate, which released both "The Hunger Games" and the final "Twilight" picture. "If moviegoers see a title get good reviews, they're going to come out once — and may come out a second or third time."
The year's top-grossing films also made a lot more money than the top five pictures of 2011. This year, three films collected more than $400 million; last year, only two took in over $300 million. As in recent years, the biggest hits were again high-budget productions with built-in brand awareness — either sequels or films based on popular comic books or novels.
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But it was a strong year for low- to mid-budget, adult-oriented fare too: Ben Affleck's CIA thriller "Argo," Steven Spielberg's historical drama "Lincoln" and the R-rated stripper flick "Magic Mike" all surpassed $100 million at the domestic box office.
For theater owners in the U.S. and Canada, the rise in box-office receipts and admissions has been a welcome turnaround from 2011, when the sharp downturn pummeled the stocks of major chains and prompted debate about what was to blame, including high ticket prices, waning interest in 3-D or just bad movies.
Despite a slow summer, theater owners enjoyed a brisk business for much of this year as well as renewed confidence from Wall Street. The two biggest chains, Regal and Cinemark, this year saw an 18% and 36% spike in their respective share prices.
Thanks to increasing ticket prices, particularly for 3-D and Imax screenings, box-office revenue often rises year-over-year. In 2012, however, ticket prices remained virtually unchanged from last year's average of $7.93, underlining that revenue growth was fueled by more people trekking to the multiplex.
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The holiday season was particularly fruitful for exhibitors, as films with broad appeal like "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" and awards contenders including "Django Unchained" lured people out of their homes.
"Just looking at the fourth quarter tells you what works for us — a lot of diverse products, well-made movies and something for everybody," said Patrick Corcoran, spokesman for the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. "The only thing missing this holiday season was a strong family title."
Indeed, there were fewer movies for parents and their children to see together this Christmas — which is likely why the PG-rated "Parental Guidance" is performing better than anticipated. In 2011, six animated or PG-rated family titles were released nationwide between Thanksgiving and Christmas compared with four this year.
"My 11-year-old daughter has already seen 'Wreck-It Ralph' three times because there are so few options out there for a kid her age," said Tara McNamara, Fandango's "Film Mom," who has three children and lives in Hermosa Beach. "So I suggested we go see 'Life of Pi,' which she had sized up by the trailer and thought looked super boring. So I said, 'How about an iced tea and some candy?' That worked, and then she ended up really loving it by the end."
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