More releases lead to 21 percent rise over last year

Thanks in part to a higher volume of releases, the domestic box office is sitting pretty so far in 2012 — well, pretty-ish, depending on the year to which it’s being compared.

At $1.57 billion as of Sunday, year-to-date B.O. is up a healthy 21% over the same two-month period in 2011. But compared to the two years before last, box office is down, if only a smidgen — Stateside totals reached $1.6 billion and $1.59 billion by this time in 2009 and 2010, respectively.

To be fair, comparisons to those years come with a higher bar: “Avatar” grossed $354 million during the first two months of 2010, while three films had scored north of $100 million each the year before. Only one film has hit that benchmark in

this year’s frame: Sony’s “The Vow” (to be joined by Universal’s “Safe House” later this week).

Though a higher number of releases in 2012 is largely responsible for the uptick — 26, as opposed to 19 in 2011 — the $1.57 billion total is still good news at a time when bizzers are concerned about changing audience behavior. In particular, under-25 males, who had shied from plexes late last year, helped boost lower-budgeted films like Fox’s “Chronicle,” with a Stateside cume of $58 million, and Paramount’s “The Devil Inside,” with just north of $53 million domestically.

While it’s good for Hollywood morale to be tracking ahead of 2011, the lag behind the two previous years is easier to digest considering 2009 was a record-shattering year in the U.S. And it’s a good sign that the marketplace has proven elastic enough to support the increase in releases.

The uptick in titles is partly the result of smaller distribs helping fill the commercial pipeline: Relativity Media, CBS Films and the market’s newest player, Open Road Films. In fact, the weekend of Jan. 27 — topped by Open Road’s first domestic win for “The Grey” — lacked a single studio wide release.

Then there’s 3D.

The format saw a surprising resurgence earlier this year when “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” scored 74% of its opening from 3D. That’s a significant improvement on last year’s “Cars 2,” which earned 40% from 3D, and “Puss in Boots,” at 51%, showing that the format isn’t in as much of a freefall as last summer’s offerings indicated.

Sony’s recent 3D pic pair, “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance” and “Underworld Awakening,” also did better in the format than most 2011 fanboy offerings, with 65% and 74%, respectively.

Lately, the biggest hurdle for movie marketers has been attracting young males. But Fox’s “Chronicle” shows that it’s still possible: The supernatural teen thriller overperformed with male teens.

Still, it’s still too soon to tell whether bizzers can bank on young men to turn out at previous levels come tentpole season.

Either way, plenty of highly anticipated blockbusters should give 2012 B.O. a fighting chance against last year’s benchmark summer. On paper at least, those titles appear to be strong enough to make a run at 2009’s record year.

In less than a month, Lionsgate launches young adult-targeted “The Hunger Games,” which should give first-quarter box office a final shot of adrenalin. But first, Disney has its fingers crossed for “John Carter,” which bows next weekend.

Entries in five billion-dollar global franchises fill the summer sked, one more than last summer: “The Avengers,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and a pair of toons, “Madagascar 3″ and “Ice Age: Continental Drift.” That’s added to Sony’s “Men in Black 3″ and Universal’s “The Bourne Legacy.” Those franchises have each grossed more than $800 million worldwide.

U is kickstarting the summer sesh overseas with “Battleship,” which bows April 13, more than a month before the U.S.

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