'Potter,' 'Avatar' spur boxoffice record in '09

Domestic haul jumps 8% over last year to $10.61 billion

Crowd-pleasing pics and extra-dimensional tix combined to lift Hollywood to new boxoffice heights in 2009, with estimated domestic b.o. up more than 8% to a record $10.6 billion and admissions climbing almost 4%.

Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ($402.1 million), Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" ($302 million) and 3D phenoms such as Fox's "Avatar" ($352.1 million) and Disney/Pixar's "Up" ($293 million) helped distribs and exhibs set the new b.o. mark.

But tickets sales in the U.S. and Canada -- at 1.41 billion admissions, compared with 1.36 billion in 2008 -- fell a bit short this year of beating the all-time record of 1.60 billion set in 2002. That's after accounting for an estimated 4.5% increase in ticket prices since a year ago, with the upcharges in 3D venues helping to inflate the price of the average movie ticket to about $7.50 by year's end.

The race for some of the top spots in annual studio market share rankings went right to the wire, though Warner Bros. had the gold-medal position nailed down early and finished with an industry-record $2.13 billion and a 20% share.

"Success of this nature doesn't happen without a team effort," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said.

The boxoffice year began Jan. 5, with Nielsen EDI always starting its calendar on the first business day after New Year's.

Paramount finished second in a tightly bunched group of majors with $1.46 billion (13.8% share), and Fox was third with $1.45 billion (13.7%), according to EDI estimates. Sony was fourth on the year with $1.44 billion (13.6%), followed by Disney with $1.21 billion (11.4%) and Universal with roughly $900 million (8.5%).

The year's remarkable industry performance came despite predictions from some quarters that climbing ticket prices would prevent the theatrical business from displaying its usual recession-resistant ways. Equally of note, moviegoers' enthusiasm for 3D pics shows exhibs still offer a theatrical experience that can compete effectively against increasingly sophisticated home-entertainment systems.

"What we've seen with 3D releases this year, most recently with 'Avatar,' is a reinvention of the moviegoing experience," AMC Entertainment chief Gerry Lopez said. "It's definitely the direction the industry is going."

Sequels proved as strong as ever this year, with a $282 million theatrical run for Summit Entertainment's vampire romance "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" joining the "Potter" and "Transformer" pics among the most successful '09 entrants in the tried-and-true category. Yet Fox's year-end boxoffice bonanza with "Avatar" and Sony's overachieving 11 months earlier with "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" ($146 million) could boost industry enthusiasm for original concepts headed into the new year -- if only as a path to creating new franchises.

It's hard to see Fox not greenlighting a follow-up to "Avatar" or Warners not producing a second "Sherlock Holmes" pic. (The latter, starring Robert Downey Jr., closed the year at $140.7 million through just 10 days of release.)

Meantime, 3D cinema has been great for exhibs, but extra-dimensional theatrical releases can present an awkward mission for studio's marketing the same movies as 2D home-entertainment titles.

"3D is very much here," said Adam Fogelson, recently installed as film chief at Universal following the studio's series of '09 boxoffice disappointments. "But while we've absolutely seen an uptick in the theatrical boxoffice of 3D films, many have faced an even stiffer challenge on DVD than their 2D counterparts."

Uni will release its first 3D movie next summer, when animated comedy "Despicable Me" hits theaters July 9.
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