B.O. admissions dip, but not revenues

Numbers don't lie as ticket prices rise 32 cents

Some folks see the box office cash register as half-full, but to others it’s half-empty.

Year-end B.O. articles in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal highlighted the fact that theatrical admissions are down from last year with such urgency that you might think the sky was falling on the movie biz.

It’s true, admissions probably dipped 4%-5% (a final number won’t be released until Christmas figures are crunched).

But revenues are running even with 2007 thanks to an increase in the average ticket price: $7.20 vs. $6.88 in 2007.

Admissions have gone up and down for decades. They climbed the last two years (0.35% in 2007 and 1.38% in 2006) but dipped the three previous: 7.27% in 2005, 2.43% in 2004 and 4.87% in 2003.

The National Assn. of Theater Owners points out that admissions were up for parts of 2008, including a 10% increase for much of the fall, as well as a bump in mid-summer.

And numbers don’t lie. But they can be contradictory. Journalists are often at the mercy of various B.O. pundits, who often calculate numbers using different parameters. Most studios calculate the year beginning on the first Friday after New Year’s and ending on the first Thursday of the following year. But some go strictly by calendar year.

Box office optimists also point out that Hollywood in 2008 didn’t have a raft of sequels and threequels to rely on, as it did in 2007.

And then there’s the economy. While nobody likes the idea of a drop in admissions, consumer cutbacks seem to have hit moviegoing less than other sectors.

Final figures will be available this month, but MasterCard’s SpendingPulse predicts holiday retail sales will be down 5.5%-8%, while the Air Transport Assn. predicted a 9% dip in ’08 holiday travel.

And that’s not even mentioning drops in auto sales and crude oil prices.

Optimists point out robust figures for Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight,” which became the second-biggest domestic grosser after “Titanic.”

Pessimists wonder what B.O. tallies would have been like without that film.

To some, it’s been a good year. Or, to put it another way, it could have been a lot worse.

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