First-quarter box office up 12%

3D films look set to offer a further boost

With the first quarter almost a wrap, domestic box office totals are up a strong 12% from the comparable period last year.

The domestic tally from Jan. 1 through Sunday reached $2.4 billion, compared with $2.2 billion for first-quarter 2009. The bar for performance this year is high after the domestic B.O. reached a record $10.6 billion last year.

Total admissions for 2010 to date also have seen a massive 7% uptick, with 321 million moviegoers, compared with last year’s 300 million.

The average ticket price over the same period last year was $7.46, with this year’s estimated first-quarter average of $7.61, according to the National Assn. of Theater Owners’ estimate. But insiders predict that the average ticket price could fluctuate this quarter because of higher ticket prices for 3D pics. A total of 21 are skedded for release this year.

Disney’s 3D hit “Alice in Wonderland” already has reached $265.4 million, still in its first month of release, becoming the highest-grossing first-quarter title. Previous record holder was Warner Bros.’ “300,” which earned $210.6 million throughout its theatrical run in 2007.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s 3D holdover “Avatar” has grossed $453.3 million since Jan. 1. Pic’s total domestic haul stands at $736.9 million.

The barrage of 3D titles continues to be a hot topic among studios and exhibs. Studios are counting on the flood of 3D titles to generate big B.O. bucks.

While Paramount readies for its launch of 3D toon “How to Train Your Dragon” on Friday, Warner’s “Clash of the Titans” is set to follow a week later. Summer 3D tentpole releases kick off with DreamWorks Animation’s “Shrek Forever After” on May 21, and Disney’s third installment in the “Toy Story” franchise bowing on June 18.

The potential roadblock to a buoyant 3D marketplace, of course, is the shortage of screens to handle the influx of product. Currently, there are 39,380 screens in the U.S. and 3,378 of them are 3D-equipped. With the help of recent funding from the Digital Cinema Implementation Partners, an estimated 2,500 3D screens could be installed by the end of this year.

On the 2D side, Paramount’s Martin Scorsese thriller “Shutter Island” seemed to benefit from being delayed from its planned release last fall. After bowing in February to $41.1 million at 2,991 engagement, “Shutter” has cumed $116.2 million.

Warner Bros.’ pair “Valentine’s Day” and “Sherlock Holmes” follow as the year’s most successful films thus far.

“Valentine’s Day” became the highest-grossing film over President’s Day weekend, with $63.1 million at 3,665 locations, having earned a total $109.7 million. “Sherlock Holmes” grossed $105.8 million this year and a total $207.9 million since its release Dec. 25.

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