Popular titles plus marketing muscle push B.O. to high point

What exactly is going on at the box office? Business is way up this year — up 20% over 2001, which itself was a record year.

Audiences are certainly responding well to the product, but it’s not exactly 1939, when the likes of “Gone with the Wind” and “The Wizard of Oz” were released.

There’s more behind the rollicking increase in biz than America’s sudden rediscovery of the movie theater.

For one thing, marketing costs are also up dramatically.

Last year, major studios reported spending an average $31 million to market each of their movies, 13% more than in 2001.

And in the first quarter of this year, movie advertising was up a startling 35%, more than in any other category tracked in a recent survey by data research service Nielsen Monitor-Plus.

That first-quarter leap is partly explained by distribs taking advantage of frames throughout the late winter and early spring that were left relatively dormant in past B.O. years.

Sony/Revolution, for example, didn’t expand “Black Hawk Down” until after the holiday crush subsided, so military actioner’s marketing budget was largely spent in January.

“You’re definitely finding more big pictures playing in the first quarter than before,” observes Geoffrey Ammer, marketing prexy at Sony.

Whatever its impetus, the surge in ad expenditures seems linked to a simple underlying premise: More marketing spending yields bigger box office.

Although frequent outcries are heard about rising ticket prices, particularly at the luxe new multiplexes, this year’s record $3.61 billion can’t be attributed to ticket increases alone.

Last year, ducat prices were up a relatively modest 5%.

Hollywood has fueled the dramatic B.O. surge by spending its extra marketing bucks wisely.

Box office tracker Nielsen EDI’s exec VP Dan Marks cites a diligent effort by studio execs to target and rein in specific kinds of audiences.

“They’re doing a good job of putting their pictures before different groups of moviegoers,” says Marks.

“Of course, it always starts with a good movie, or a movie that has commerical aspects to it. But though the studios always strive to make sure they hit their key demos, it just seems that they’ve done an extraordinary job of that this year.”

Displaying just such a deft approach, Warner Bros. was able to successfully open older-skewing suspenser “Insomnia” over the Memorial Day frame even though blockbusters “Spider-Man” and “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” were still going strong.

Likewise Fox, with its adult-oriented drama “Unfaithful” and Universal with “About a Boy,” a thoughtful laffer toplined by Hugh Grant, were able to tap into post-teen auds.

DreamWorks mounted a high-profile campaign for recent release “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron,” a tooner that’s done best with young girls since opening over the Memorial Day sesh.

Distrib hopes its lavish marketing has heightened auds’ awareness of pic sufficiently to ensure pic’s playing deep into June.

But DreamWorks marketing maven Terry Press stresses campaign hasn’t been as costly as it might have been if distrib tried to market tale of a freedom-loving wild stallion too broadly.

“The mistake would have been to throw money around targeting audiences it never was intended for,” Press says. ” ‘Spirit’ is a first-choice picture for girls; it would always be a third choice for boys.”

However, the tooner is cantering along with hopes of reaching only about $75 million domestically.

Meanwhile, exhibs say don’t forget them when dishing kudos for the boffo B.O.

Shiny new megaplexes continue to come on line in markets big and small — recent industry travails notwithstanding — and execs suggest these state-of-the-art venues and their array of modern amenities figure prominently in the current enthusiasm for moviegoing.

“It certainly helps when people are provided fabulous facilities to make their moviegoing experience the best it can be,” says Dick Westerling, a spokesman for giant Regal Entertainment.

“Studios and exhibitors are really clicking right now. Studios are marketing to their target audience very well, and moviegoers are being provided some really quality venues in which to see those films.”

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