3D drives record summer

Premium ticket sales make up for lower admissions

Summer 2009 has notched a 4% uptick at the domestic boxoffice in a record performance based largely on a not-so-secret extra dimension.

Premium ticket charges at 3D venues fueled a bigger-than-usual 5.5% increase in the nation's average ticket price to $7.54. With the season's final numbers now in, the pricier tickets helped shape a $4.30 billion summer that topped both last summer's $4.13 billion tally and the previous seasonal record of $4.16 billion, set in summer 2007.

Still, admissions were down modestly from last summer, after accounting for the ticket-price inflation. Hollywood hasn't marked a new summer admissions high since 2004, when 642 million tickets were sold, according to the National Association of Theaters Owners.

A total 570 million tickets were sold in summer '09, or 1.5% fewer than in the previous summer. But despite any hand-wringing over declining ticket sales, the surge in seasonal bo represents fresh evidence that 3D is proving to be the boon industryites have been hoping for.

"It's certainly helping," NATO spokesman Patrick Corcoran said. "We've topped $4 billion for the third straight summer, and 3D is bringing people into the theaters."

As for the drop in admissions, he adds, "There are a lot of businesses that would be very happy to be selling fewer of their products for more money."

A sharp rise in average ticket prices is likely to continue for the balance of this year and next, as the industry's 3D rollout continues. But its impact on boxoffice is already clear, especially with animated titles.

For Disney's summer 3D releases "Up" and "G-Force" and a three-quel to Fox's "Ice Age," 3D grosses accounted for roughly half of the films' respective haul. That's particularly impressive considering 3D venues repped only about one-third of each pic's total engagements.

Still, the summer's top-grossing pic boasted not a single 3D playdate. Paramount's DreamWorks-produced action sequel "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" has grossed $400 million domestic and about $830 miillion globally.

Also, Warner Bros. -- a repeat champ in seasonal boxoffice, with an estimated $1 billion since May 1 -- was led by the $297 million charge of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," which boasts a mere 13 minutes of extra-dimensional footage.

Meanwhile, excitement over the boost in average ticket charges is offset by frustration over a still-paltry installed base of 3D systems both domestically and abroad. There were about 1,500 non-competitive 3D screens available to distributors in early summer and still fewer than 1,700 today.

The rollout of digital and 3D projection hardware has been hampered by inadequate financing. With the nation's protracted lending crunch easing, there is spreading hope that a more rapid rollout of 3D systems soon can commence.

Four 3D pics were released this summer -- counting Disney's "X Games: The Movie" but not the "Potter" pic -- compared to just one last summer ("Journey to the Center of the Earth"). Seven extra-dimensional pics have unspooled since Jan. 1 and an equal number are set for release by year's end for a total 14 3-D titles.

Yet only non-3D releases spawned new film franchises this summer.

Sequels already are planned for summer hits including Par's military actioner "G.I. Joe" and Warner Bros.' breakout comedy "The Hangover." And how long can it be before Sony officially greenlights a follow-up to its sleeper scifi thriller "District 9?"

But despite the emphasis on tentpole releases, most of the summer boxoffice still comes from small pics. There were 13 $100 million grossers this summer, just one more than the previous summer and three fewer than in 2007.

"That means we had about $400 million more spread around among under-$100 million grossers this summer than in 2007," NATO's Corcoran said.

It should be noted for year-over-year comparisons that summer '09 boasted one more weekend than last summer, due to seasonal calendar fluctuations. The fall will have one fewer frame than a year earlier, according to Nielsen EDI's boxoffice calendar.

Year-to-date, the industry is tracking roughly 4% ahead of the same portion of last year, at $7.21 billion.