Numbers down 2.5% yet up 4.5% so far in '09

Theater admissions fell less than anticipated in 2008 — 2.5% — while they are up a sizeable 4.5% so far this year.

Tallies provide further evidence that moviegoing has become a favorite pastime in brutal economic times.

Industry estimates released at the end of December showed that admissions for 2008 were running 4%-5% behind 2007.

However, the decline in admissions turned out to be narrower than that as the National Assn. of Theater Owners announced Tuesday that the 2008 average ticket price was $7.18, lower than expected. (It’s 30¢ more than the $6.88 paid for a ticket on average in 2007.)

B.O. revenues for 2008 were up more than 1% over 2007, making it the best year ever at the domestic B.O. For the time period Jan. 2, 2008, through Jan. 1, 2009, revs were $9.64 billion, according to Rentrak.

The number of people actually buying tickets at the theater kiosk always fluctuates since ticket prices rise annually. Hence admissions can be down but revenues up.

A 2.5% dip in admissions is relatively mild, particularly considering the falloff in other sectors in the last six months. Admissions were down more than 7% in 2005, for instance, and 4.8% in 2003. They were up slightly in 2007 and 2006.

The box office has been on a winning run since last summer. Some observers attribute the healthy B.O. to the fact that heading for the multiplex — or arthouse — is far less expensive than other entertainment outings, such as sports or concerts.

The strength of the January domestic box office has caught the film biz off-guard. Like admissions, B.O. revs are up, seeing a gain of 7% over the same frame last year.

Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” is the leader, grossing nearly $100 million to date for Warner Bros. and well on its way to becoming Eastwood’s best box office earner for a film he’s either directed or starred in.

Sony’s sleeper hit “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” has likewise overperformed, cuming $65 million through Jan. 25.

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