LAS VEGAS - Family crowds spoke louder than fans of racy stories or shoot-'em-up action flicks last year at movie theaters, with PG-rated films hauling in more money than R-rated ones for the first time in 20 years.
PG titles grossed $2.3 billion domestically, compared to $2.1 billion for R-rated films, according to figures released Tuesday by the National Association of Theatre Owners. PG-13 movies did the most business with $4.4 billion.
Five of 2004's top-10 moneymakers were rated PG, which means they were open to all audiences, among them "Shrek 2," "The Incredibles" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Out of the top 25, only four carried R ratings, which prohibit those younger than 17 from attending unless accompanied by an adult.
"We want to call on our friends in the studios to continue this trend and to continue to distribute to us family titles, because that's where we sell more movie tickets," John Fithian, the group's president, said at ShoWest, an annual convention of theater owners.
Domestic revenue at movie houses rose slightly to $9.5 billion, though higher admission prices meant the actual number of tickets sold dropped 2.4 percent to 1.54 billion, according to the theater owners group and the Motion Picture Association of America, the key trade group for Hollywood's biggest studios.
The average cost of a movie ticket was up 3 percent to $6.21.
Fithian and new MPAA chief Dan Glickman said that despite the dip in ticket sales, it was the third straight year that revenues came in above $9 billion. More people have gone to theaters during that stretch than in any three-year period since the late 1950s, when television was eroding movie audiences, they said.
Studios managed to hold down overall expenses last year, with their average outlay to make and market a movie coming in at $98 million, down 5 percent from 2003. Production costs held steady at an average of $63.6 million a film, but marketing expenses fell 12 percent to a $34.4 million average.
Glickman, a former congressman and U.S. agriculture secretary under President Clinton, was making his first appearance at ShoWest since taking over in September from Jack Valenti, who retired after 38 years as MPAA head.
Like Valenti, Glickman said his biggest task is fighting movie piracy. Illegal copies of major films, often shot by camcorders off movie screens, can turn up for download on the Internet the same weekend the movies open. Pirated DVDs show up just days later.
During a trip last week to Mexico City, Glickman noted hundreds of flea-market stalls that appeared to be selling bootlegged DVDs and compact discs, including "The Pacifier," the Vin Diesel family flick that had debuted as the No. 1 weekend movie just five days earlier.
"The Pacifier" was produced by Glickman's son, Jonathan. When he related that to his son, there was "three seconds of silence, and 'Dad, what are you going to do about it?'"
Studios and the MPAA have been pushing lawsuits and criminal arrests for those caught distributing pirated movies.
"Within days or even hours, the genetic code of a movie can spread from Washington to Bangkok," Glickman said. "This issue has potential to be a dagger in the heart of the motion picture industry."
Theater owners also remain worried about the shrinking gap between theatrical debuts and home video release of movies, Fithian said. That window now averages just four months and 16 days, potentially costing theater chains money if moviegoers figure it is not worth the bother to head to a theater when the DVD release is just around the corner.
Still, that narrowing gap has an upside for theaters, since booming DVD sales mean more profits for Hollywood in general, Fithian said.
"When a picture does extremely well on DVD sales, all that means is that studio profits enough to take that money and put it back into production of good movies for us in the following couple of years," Fithian said. "So more power to the studios to make more money in their ancillary lines of business."