At big screens, summer business has been brisk

[29 August 2007]

By Carrie Rickey

The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

With box office up 10 percent this summer over last, the Debbie Downers who were wringing their hands two years ago about moviegoers abandoning multiplexes for home theaters have changed their tune.

“It was a record-breaking summer in terms of revenue,” says Paul Dergarabedian of Media by Numbers, which tracks the box office. The analyst projects a $4.15 billion take between May Day and Labor Day, with overall attendance up 5 percent over last year.

“Threequels” such as “Spider-Man 3,” “Shrek the Third” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” each reeled in more than $300 million. “Transformers,” “Knocked Up” and “Hairspray” (each over $100 million) and “Superbad” all proved irresistible audience bait.

While attendance did not smash records, it was the first time in two years that ticket sales topped the 600 million mark. Dergarabedian estimates that 605 million tickets will be sold this summer, falling short of the 650 million in 2002. Then, the average ticket price was $5.80. Today it is $6.85, which accounts for the boost in revenue. (If that sounds low, understand that the average factors in lower-priced kid, senior and daytime tickets.)

Why is this summer different from all other summers? No World Cup or Olympics to compete for viewer time, for starters. But overall, it looks to be a case of familiarity breeding content.

Movie ticket buyers knew what they were getting with “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” ($283 million at the domestic box office) and “Live Free or Die Hard” ($132 million). Pop phenoms such as “Transformers” ($308 million), “The Simpsons Movie” ($173 million) and “Hairspray” ($107 million and counting) likewise arrived in theaters with high brand recognition.

Perhaps habituated by television, moviegoers enjoyed familiar characters in new contexts. During the summer of `07 Spider-Man contemplated marriage, Shrek impending fatherhood, and Capt. Jack Sparrow his navel.

If audiences liked what Dergarabedian calls the “comfort factor” of the summer’s movie fare, they also liked the coming-of-age recipes cooked up by Judd Apatow, who wrote and directed “Knocked Up” ($147 million) and produced “Superbad” ($68 million and counting), two surprise hits. And while we’re working the food metaphor, “Ratatouille,” the original about the rat who becomes a chef, is closing in on $200 million.

In at least one important way, the summer of 2007 is like all others of the last two decades. Women and girls were marginal figures in the many adventure, action and coming-of-age films. In the few movies with women, they tended to be girlfriends-of (Kirsten Dunst in “Spider-Man,” Katherine Heigl in “Knocked Up”) or sidekicks (Keira Knightley in “Pirates,” Emma Watson in “Harry Potter,” Joan Allen in “The Bourne Ultimatum”).

Similarly, once you got past Don Cheadle in “Ocean’s 13,” Queen Latifah in “Hairspray,” Chow Yun-Fat in “Pirates” and Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker in “Rush Hour 3,” there were surprisingly few people of color in major roles on the multiplex screen. Exceptions were Cheadle and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the excellent “Talk to Me,” which failed to find an audience.

But just because it was a great summer, warns veteran Hollywood reporter Len Klady of moviecitynews.com, “doesn’t mean the trend away from movies in theaters isn’t happening.” It only means that those preoccupied with writing the movie theater’s obituary may be a few years, or even a generation, early.

Studios make about 16 percent of their revenues from showing films in theaters, about 47 percent from DVD sales and rentals, and the remainder from on-demand and television.

“Movies in theaters are loss leaders, much like hardback books in publishing,” Klady explains. In other words, many movies don’t make their costs back in theaters but the attendant publicity and buzz stimulate later sales (DVD and pay cable) that will make them profitable. Yet in this summer of the threequel, the summer when “four movies made $300 million-plus, many titles have gone into profit during their theatrical runs.

So for the moment, Hollywood is Jollywood and looking forward to breaking more records, including last year’s $9.5 billion box office.

“Now that we’ve had a $4 billion summer,” says Dergarabedian, “it may very well mean that we could have a $10 billion year.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/at-big-screens-summer-business-has-been-brisk/