Bucks up, tix dip

Grosses hit record despite admissions drop

LAS VEGAS — Domestic movie admissions fell 3% last year, even as grosses hit an all-time high thanks to boosted ticket prices.

But in dishing those stats Tuesday, Motion Picture Assn. of America chief Jack Valenti hastened to note a 25% uptick in admissions in 2001 so far compared with the same period last year.

And the silver-tongued Valenti, in his annual ShoWest address to exhibs here, suggested moviegoing enthusiasm remains high among the American public.

“We have proven ourselves resistant to the furious daily challenges mounted against us by other media,” Valenti told 3,000-plus exhibs. “We are still robust and hardy.”

The average American sees five pics a year — more than moviegoers in any other country — and among those viewing a dozen or more films annually, some 32% were older than 40, according to MPAA stats.

“The core of our business is still sturdy,” Valenti said. “Movie attendance is not confined to the young.”

Admissions in 2000 were 1.42 billion, down from 1999 by some 44 million admissions.

Other stats showed Hollywood studios released 18% fewer films last year — at 84 — while spending 8% more to make and market individual pics.

The average negative cost on studio pics released in 2000 climbed to $54.8 million from $51.5 million a year earlier. Prints and advertising added an average $27.3 million, up from $24.5 million in 1999, Valenti said.

Turning his sights to regulatory matters, Valenti noted a recent Federal Trade Commission inquiry into movie industry ratings, and said a recent MPAA poll showed 81% of parents with children under 13 found the ratings “very useful” to “fairly useful.” A separate, FTC-commissioned survey found 80% of parents were “satisfied” with the current rating system.

“The FTC survey also judged that a majority of theaters were indeed enforcing the voluntary movie rating system,” Valenti said. “I counted this to be a profoundly significant and publicly beneficial finding.

“The best-kept secret of our industry is that exhibition and distribution are the only enterprises in America that voluntarily turn away revenues in order to redeem the pledges we have made to parents,” he said. “No other American industry can make that statement.”

Tough enforcement

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, echoed the praise for exhibs’ ratings enforcement.

“I received several phone calls in anticipation of ratings enforcement problems with the release of ‘Hannibal,’ ” Fithian said. “I’m proud to report that we had no significant problems. The most successful release of an R-rated film in history was coupled with the most successful ratings enforcement ever.”

The NATO prexy noted the prospect for further government scrutiny of ratings enforcement and advised: “We must remain vigilant. Train your staff; review your trailers. Post the ratings information in your lobbies and on your Web sites. Check IDs.”

Fewer ‘R’s

Fithian also lauded a recent rise in family-friendly moviemaking in Hollywood.

Seven of the nine major studios made fewer R-rated films last year, Fithian said. Just under 40% of all major releases last year received an R-rating, compared to 58% in 1999.

Fithian acknowledged the 800-pound gorilla in exhibs’ collective living room by predicting the industry will emerge from a fiscal crisis of historic proportions stronger than ever. With 10 theater chains having filed for recent bankruptcy reorganizations and several circuits seeing a change in ownership as a result, “indeed, a long year it has been,” Fithian mused.

But he argued that the spate of multiplex building of recent years, which some say led to the current financial woes, was not to blame. “These improvements were necessary to preserve exhibition’s preeminent status as the first and best movie entertainment experience.”

Too many dinosaurs

The problem, Fithian said, was exhibs’ inability to shutter older, money-losing properties quickly enough. Bankruptcy reorganizations are helping to address the issue, and a peak of about 38,000 domestic screens last summer was cut to 36,379 by year’s end, according to NATO stats.

“By my estimate, we’re shrinking by about 200 screens a month now, on average,” Fithian said. “That count will continue to shrink in the short term, as it must. With new, exciting complexes and reduced overall screen count, exhibition companies will grow healthy again.”

Cautionary note

But if Fithian welcomed the influx of new investment that’s entered exhibition via bankruptcy reorganization, the CEO of a circuit feted at ShoWest this year seemed to take a swipe at the new players.

Referring perhaps to entertainment entrepreneur Philip Anschutz, who recently took over United Artist Theatres and is eyeing a couple of other chains, Raymond Syufy, chief of Century Theatres, cautioned: “Great theater circuits are not built overnight; they are not built by acquisitions, nor are they built by size and leveraging costs.”

Rather, exhib success comes from slow, steady growth and good management of operations “theater by theater,” Syufy said.

San Rafael, Calif.-based Century has been among the industry’s healthier circuits of late, and Syufy and circuit prexy Joseph Syufy have been named ShoWesters of the year.

Grazer keynote

Imagine Entertainment co-topper Brian Grazer also offered keynote remarks supporting the notion that the public’s appetite for moviegoing is constant through good times and bad, as evidenced by 19 pics grossing more than $100 million amid a record $7.7 billion in U.S. box office last year.

“Over the past 20 years that I’ve been coming here, skeptics and pundits have said that films are getting worse, exhibition is getting worse, and the business is either changing or contracting,” Grazer said.

Like Valenti, the effervescent producer offered a list of historic and current challenges to the theatrical experience by everything from broadcast TV and cable to DVD and the Internet.

“(But) people absolutely love movies,” Grazer enthused. “Yes, the price of a ticket has gone up, but thanks to you people, the comfort and the overall experience of seeing movies has been heightened so that it’s well worth it.”

To be exact, average ticket prices rose 32¢, or 6%, to $5.40 last year. Since 1990, tickets have become 28% more costly.

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