risky business

More flat admission figures give record '07 a little static

When the MPAA offers its annual report card on the movie business, as it did this week, it serves up plenty of colorful charts and graphs to make its points as dramatically as possible.

And this year, MPAA chairman and CEO Dan Glickman was happy to report that the domestic boxoffice tally for the U.S. and Canada was up 5.4% in 2007 to a record-setting $9.6 billion — even if most of that increase was because of rising ticket prices.

But dig deeper into the MPAA's report, compiled with the assistance of the number-crunchers at Nielsen EDI, and one stubborn fact jumps out.

For the past 10 years, the number of annual admissions has remained relatively static — hovering at just one side or the other of the 1.4 billion mark, which is the number the MPAA reported for 2007.

Yes, there have been years when the turnstiles turned faster. In 2002, admissions reached their modern-day high of 1.599 billion. Other years have seen some backsliding. In 2005, with only 19 films crossing the $100 million mark, admissions dipped to a 10-year low of 1.376 billion to much wringing of hands.

But overall, for the past decade, the habits of moviegoers haven't markedly changed.

On one hand, that's good news. Despite all the dire predictions that greeted 2005's boxoffice slump, competition from DVDs, video games and new media hasn't destroyed moviegoing habits as many feared.

On the other hand, the industry has shown little evidence of real growth. Instead, the major players continue to jostle with one another to carve out competitive slices of the same-size pie.

Instead, they should focus on growing the pie.

Part of the answer might be to simply offer moviegoers more choices. Choice is the hallmark of the rapidly growing world of digital entertainment as online download sites work to beef up their offerings and satellite and cable providers add ever more VOD titles to their lineups.

But on any given weekend, film distributors and exhibitors — which still are in the early stages of their own digital transformation — offer potential moviegoers only limited choices. While in major cities and college towns there are dozens of titles holding down single screens, in the major multiplexes throughout America there rarely are more than a dozen first-run movies in circulation.

This past weekend, for example, there were only 16 titles playing in wide release on more than 1,000 screens. Three of those were the Oscar winners "No Country for Old Men," "There Will Be Blood" and "Juno," enjoying their moment in the limelight. Take them out of the mix and there was only one wide release, "The Bucket List," that had been in theaters longer than four weeks.

The reality is that most wide releases come and go after just a month, a practice dictated by the costs of the TV ad buys that support wide openings.

But if the industry is to offer the array of choices modern entertainment consumers demand, it will have to figure a way to keep a wider selection of movies on a significant number of screens for slightly longer runs at the major multiplexes.

But how to do that? The Internet might hold the answer. The MPAA also reported that while 75% of moviegoers get information on movies from radio and TV, 73% also consult the Internet before heading out.

Cut back on some of those TV spends, pump that money into Internet ads — which now constitute just 4.4% of advertising budgets — and distributors might yet find a way to pump up the number of annual admissions.
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