Prices make banner year for box office

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LOS ANGELES — Despite a string of summertime flops, Hollywood is expected to have a banner year at the domestic box office, coming in just shy of $11 billion, the largest annual take ever. But because of higher ticket prices, actual attendance at North American theaters remained flat after a decade of decline.

With the current domestic box-office tally nearly 1 percent ahead of last year at this time, 2013 could surpass 2012’s overall haul of $10.8 billion by more than $100 million, according to box-office tracker Rentrak.

High-profile flops such as The Lone Ranger, After Earth, R.I.P.D. and Turbo were offset by mega-hits like Fast & Furious 6 and Iron Man 3, which consistently filled theaters last summer.

More recently, Warner Bros.’ space epic Gravity has earned $254 million domestically, Lionsgate’s sci-fi sequel The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has grossed $378 million and fantasy prequel The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug has brought in $150 million for Warner Bros. A strong holiday slate is also boosting the box-office total.

“There has virtually been every kind of genre of film available,” said Rentrak box-office analyst Paul Dergarabedian. “You have blockbusters like Hobbit and esoteric, challenging films like Nebraska, Dallas Buyers Club and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. All of these films get people to the movies.”

But the National Associa­tion of Theater Owners projects that the actual number of tickets sold domestically in 2013 will remain about the same as last year’s 1.36 billion. The all-time high is 1.57 billion admissions in 2002.

Entertainment available on countless portable devices continues to threaten movie attendance, as do advanced home theater systems and video-on-demand services.

But Hollywood is fighting back with the premium multiplex experience. Movie attendance may be tepid, but the audience is willing to pay more for extras, which keep the bottom line growing, even as admissions remain flat.

“Theaters are offering IMAX, bigger chairs, dine-in options and alcohol,” said Don Harris, head of distribution at Paramount. “It’s kind of like the difference between staying at a Hilton or a Ritz Carlton. I think what you saw this year was a growth in a segment of the audience that isn’t as worried about the price of a movie ticket as they are interested in the out-of-home premium experience. I think you’re going to see that going forward.”

And with all of the bells and whistles now offered at theaters, movie-going is still one of the least expensive ways to be entertained, compared to concerts, sporting events and live theater,” notes Richie Fay, Lionsgate’s president of domestic distribution.

Social media has also helped boost sales, Fay observed, with Twitter and other services providing a powerful marketing tool for studios and a fast way for fans to spread that all-important word of mouth.

Studios are hoping to continue that growth in 2014 with such anticipated releases as Captain America: The Winter Soldier; The Amazing Spider-Man 2; X-Men: Days of Future Past; Transformers: Age of Extinction; Dumb and Dumber To; The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 and The Hobbit: There and Back Again.

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