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MPAA TRUMPETS PAINS, GAINS

B.O. take of $5.91 bil hurt by cost rise

LAS VEGAS — Jack Valenti served up a big helping of sweet and sour at ShoWest ’97 Tuesday, reminding attendees that box office and admissions were up slightly last year, though production and marketing costs saw increases that outpaced those gains.

Tuesday morning, the Motion Picture Assn. of America president told delegates that the org pegged 1996 B.O. at $5.91 billion, with ticket sales hitting 1.34 billion. Those represent respective increases of 7.6% and 6% from the prior year.

The numbers mirror growth rates reported by Daily Variety in January, but include revenues from such nontraditional theatrical venues as Imax, which last year estimated its domestic revenues at between $125 million and $135 million.

However, the MPAA survey of member companies (and their subsidiaries) pegged the average production cost of a movie at $39.8 million, with an additional $19.8 million spent on promotion. Those sectors rose by 9.5% and 11.8%, respectively.

A straw poll of studio marketing execs here indicated that the figure appears low, at least in the promotional area. The consensus was that marketing costs were between $23 million and $25 million and many predicted they will again grow by more than 10% this year.

Ever the industry cheerleader, Valenti put his characteristically upbeat spin on attendance and the future of the moviegoing experience, and pointed to a bright spot on the horizon: the international arena.

He noted that 41% of all revenues for the majors, including TV and video, now come from outside North America, with the theatrical split at roughly 50/50. The overall growth in foreign territories was 13%, but theatrical and video portions appear to be slowing, with the former up 8.5% and cassettes rising just 7%.

Nonetheless, several major markets have shown significant expansion keyed to the introduction of new multiplex and megaplex locations. In the past three years, such countries as England, Spain, Italy and Germany each have added 300-400 new screens.

Valenti said he’s long felt that a strong national cinema in overseas markets would also be good for American movies — a belief that especially was borne out in Germany. In 1996, that country’s homegrown films attracted an additional 2 million viewers, while U.S. product was on the rise by 11 million patrons.

Data on the composition of the audience proved confusing. Valenti announced that moviegoers aged 21-39 comprised 37.5% of the audience, while those over 40 constituted 30.5%. He said those viewing habits represented increases of 3.9% and 12.5%, respectively. The youngest sector polled — 12 to 20 — constituted 347.8 million, or 25.9%, for a whopping rise of 25%.

The survey does not track children under 12, but by subtraction they would represent approximately 6%, or about 80 million tickets — a figure exhibition sources feel is significantly lower than their experience reflects.

Further, a year ago, Valenti had said that 12-20-year-olds accounted for 25% and the over-40s represented 33%, which would seem to contradict the percentage gains.

He said Caucasians composed 70% of the domestic audience, Hispanics 13%, blacks 11% and others 6%.

The study also concluded the average pic-going frequency at 8.1 times annually, up from 7.0 times in 1995, a 15.7% boost. However, it was unclear whether there was a consistency in the sampling from year to year.

Valenti applauded the work of such independents as Joel and Ethan Coen and Steven Soderbergh, but made it clear that the American film industry is fueled by films from the majors. He estimated that “Jerry Maguire’s” box office represents 80%-90% of the total of all five best-picture Oscar nominees; however, it’s actually 54% domestically and even lower worldwide.

He also provided mixed signals in referring to a statement made by French director Jean-Luc Godard — a filmmaker whose work he admires — concerning the audience. “When a truly great film becomes commercially successful, it is the result of a misunderstanding.”

Valenti chose to disagree, ascribing Godard’s views and those of unnamed critics as ill-informed. He threw his lot in with the moviegoer, and added that his years in Washington have made him mindful “never to disrespect the voters.”

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