B.O. plays slip ‘n’ slide

'05 admissions dip 11%

With the 2005 domestic box office race wrapping up this weekend, two things are clear: Warner Bros. and Fox can be glad they’re in a virtual tie for first place, but nobody in Hollywood has much reason to smile.

With the exception of blockbusters, nothing worked as well this year. While the top 15 films of 2005 — those with domestic cumes over $120 million — were on a par with the top films last year, every film below No. 15 in the top 100 did worse than the one with the same rank in 2004.

Although the last few months of the year have minimized the B.O. deficit — 8% in August, but down to 5% in December — hopes have been dashed that a strong holiday season could close that gap entirely.

For the year, B.O. looks to come in around $8.75 billion, down from $9.2 billion in 2004. As has been the trend since 2002, rising ticket prices hide an even sharper drop in admissions — 11% to 1.32 billion from the 1.48 billion last year.

Even more bad news: 527 new pics were released in 2005, compared with 507 in 2004. That means Hollywood did less business with more films.

Top-ranked WB and Fox, both of which made a little more than $1.3 billion (Fox got a $380 million boost from the year’s top grosser, Lucasfilm’s “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith”), came in slightly ahead of 2004 pack leader Sony.

Final numbers will be released next week, but Sony is set to take third place for the year, with “Hitch” and “Are We There Yet?” its top earners. It’s followed by Universal, Disney, Paramount, DreamWorks (thanks mainly to “Madagascar” from its sister toon unit), New Line, Miramax and Lionsgate.

But most studios in the No. 3 through 10 positions scored tallies lower than the studios with those rankings last year.

Among the year’s top-grossing films, the same formula worked this year as last. Most were sequels or entries in well-known franchises, such as “Star Wars,” “Harry Potter” and “Batman.” Family-friendly tentpoles such as “Madagascar” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” were once again a good bet. And as with 2004’s “Meet the Fockers,” this year saw one $200 million-plus breakout comedy, “Wedding Crashers.”

Of course, on their own terms, numerous low-budget pics hit big, including “Crash,” “March of the Penguins,” “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and, if current trends continue, “Brokeback Mountain.”

But on the whole, mid- and lower-tier pics in 2005 did a little worse domestically than in 2004.

The bar was lowered this year. For instance, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” earned $50.4 million to land at No. 49. Last year, the midrange earners were more successful, meaning a $50.4 million tally would have put a pic at No. 64.

Some say the content simply wasn’t as compelling this year, and it’s true that 2004 saw a few unique hits such as “The Passion of the Christ” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” But high-minded pics like “North Country” and “Prime” earned less than $25 million while formulaic fare like “Fantastic Four,” “The Pacifier” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” did well, so it’s hard to say the problem is quality.

Most execs admit the competition for Americans’ leisure time is now even greater, especially in the form of videogames, Internet and other digital options.

“It’s a tougher battle for us to get the audience to come into theaters,” said U vice chairman Marc Shmuger.

Clearly, people still are willing to venture into theaters for the year’s biggest events like “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” as well as breakout fare everyone’s talking about, such as “Wedding Crashers.” And parents still want a few films to enjoy with the kids, such as “Madagascar.”

But in other cases, auds increasingly are willing to wait for the DVD. Or, as the slowing DVD market indicates, simply concluding the pic isn’t worth it and renting a TV series DVD or firing up the Xbox instead.

Nobody has the answer to turning around the trend of a slumping B.O. But most execs agree that upping the number of films in the market, as happened in 2005, doesn’t help.

“The market needs fewer movies, so there is less clutter and what remains can more easily break out,” said Warner production prexy Jeff Robinov. “We also need more films with international appeal.”

Of course, pics with worldwide appeal tend to have big stars and big f/x, which can drive up the costs. With studio production budgets staying about even, that’s another reason auds can expect fewer movies in theaters over the next several years.

Beyond focusing the content, Hollywood is hoping 2006 will be the year it draws more people into theaters by improving the moviegoing experience. Starting in the next few months, thousands of movie screens will be going digital. Besides reducing print costs and making it easier to shift pics between screens, digital will improve picture quality and allow for new effects, like the 3-D process that debuted with “Chicken Little” and is expected to be repeated with several films next year.

No matter the solution, the doldrums of 2005 have driven home one point to Hollywood: Despite the growing population and all the new production and marketing tools at studios’ disposal, getting butts into seats is a tougher task than ever.

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