Summer box office looks hot

Big grosses defy negative claims

What slump?

Even though the 2008 domestic box office has all but caught up with last year’s record-breaking levels — the final boost being the mammoth opening of Warner Bros.’ “The Dark Knight” — some major news outlets continue to say the film biz is struggling.

This week, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal penned stories saying that “Dark Knight” was a much-needed shot in the arm for Hollywood, largely ignoring the fact that any number of summer films have enjoyed better-than-expected grosses. (“Batman Film Snaps Hollywood Slump,” proclaimed the WSJ headline.)

Such reporting galls studio execs. For one thing, summer B.O. is slightly ahead of last year’s.

But even putting figures aside, execs say that focus on numbers overlooks other considerations. They say they can’t remember another summer that has spawned so many new franchises — including “Iron Man,” “Kung Fu Panda,” “Wanted” and “Get Smart” — not to mention stand-alone hits.

“More importantly, not only are we doing well financially, people are liking the movies. Audiences loved films like ‘Iron Man,’ ‘Sex and the City,’ ‘Dark Knight’ and ‘Mamma Mia!,’ ” one studio distribution chief said.

Both the NYT and WSJ highlighted the fact that overall attendance continues to run behind last year by roughly 3%, evidence that the movie biz isn’t a growth industry. They also said it was a sign of weakness that 2008 hasn’t overtaken 2007 in terms of total box office revenues, since revs don’t account for the rate of inflation. In other words, just because revenues are strong doesn’t mean more people are going to theaters; it simply means higher ticket prices.

Studios, however, consider it a major victory that revenues for both the summer and the year are running essentially even with 2007, particularly when so many sectors of the ailing economy are taking a brutal beating. This summer didn’t have the titan franchises populating summer 2007, i.e., “Spider-Man,” “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Shrek.” Instead, Hollywood had to gamble on original properties to a large degree.

“The fact we are in a dead heat with 2007 is remarkable, particularly when the economy is tanking,” Paramount co-chair Rob Moore said. “Not to be significantly down from last summer, when you had these gigantic sequels, is a major accomplishment. People were very skeptical that this year could keep pace.”

Through Tuesday, box office revenues were running only slightly less than 1% behind 2007 for the year at $5.49 billion, compared with $5.52 billion for the same period in 2007. Revenues for the summer through Tuesday were $2.87 billion, compared with $2.85 billion a year ago.

A week ago, year-to-date revenues were running about 3.5% behind. “Dark Knight,” combined with “Mamma Mia!” and several strong holdovers, essentially closed the gap.

Attendance is a murky area. Because of rising ticket prices, admissions can be down even when box office revenues are up. Admissions are calculated using the average ticket price provided by the Motion Picture Assn. of America. Presently, the average ticket price is $7.08, compared with an average ticket price of $6.88 in 2007.

Because of the strength of the family film biz in the second quarter of this year, the $7.08 figure may be revised downward in the coming days, which would boost 2008 admissions and narrow the decline over 2007.

“Admissions are consistently down from previous years because there is much more competition for people time, in terms of entertainment choices,” Moore said.

Exhibitors are generally pleased with summer business, saying there has been a more consistent flow of product, vs. last summer, which was front-loaded with May tentpoles. Theater owners also are benefiting from unusually strong weekday traffic.

On the other hand, exhibs are getting hurt by rising corn prices, with some increasing the cost of popcorn.

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