Box Office 2014: Moviegoing Hits Two-Decade Low

Theater Box Office - H 2014
AP Images

Theater Box Office - H 2014

A number of tentpoles underperformed in North America, helping to fuel the slowdown

The number of people going to the movies in 2014 in North America slipped to its lowest level in two decades.

According to preliminary estimates, roughly 1.26 billion consumers purchased cinema tickets between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31. That's the lowest number since 1.21 billion in 1995 and not that far ahead of 1994 (1.24 billion). The last time admissions fell below the 1.3 billion mark was in 2011, when only 1.28 billion people when to the movies.

Official figures for 2014 won't be released until the National Association of Theater Owners calculates the average movie ticket price for 2014 (that can't happen until the average for the fourth quarter is figured out). However, the average ticket price for 2014 is likely to be at least $8.15, compared to $8.13 for 2013.

Read more Todd McCarthy's 10 Best Films of 2014

Year-over-year, attendance looks to be off 6 percent from 2013, when admissions clocked in at 1.34 billion.

Admissions have fluctuated dramatically over the years, and particularly since the advent of modern-day 3D, which can skew the average ticket price. Moviegoing in North America hit an all-time high in 2002, when 1.57 billion consumers lined up, thanks in part to Spider-Man ($403 million), The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ($339.8 million), Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones ($302.2 million), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($262 million) and My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($241.4 million).

Overall revenue for the North American box office in 2014 is expected to finish at roughly $10.36 billion, down 5 percent over 2013 and marking the biggest year-over-year decline in nine years.

If there's any good news, it's that the film business has used the fall and winter — including a prosperous Christmas season — to reverse some of the damage suffered this summer, when revenue tumbled 15 percent over 2013 and hit an eight-year low. Also, a number of smaller films did big business, helping to boost the bottom line, while the international box office is as vibrant as ever.

Read more Best of 2014: Biggest Box Office Surprises

The culprit for malaise in North America?

A number of summer tentpoles underperformed compared to previous installments, including Sony's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2) and Paramount's Transformers: Age of Extinction (June 27). And while November's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1, from Lionsgate, is only the second release of 2014 to cross $300 million after Disney and Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy (Aug. 1), it still won't match its predecessors, both of which earned north of $400 million domestically. (So far, Guardians is the top earner of 2014 domestically at $332 million, although Mockingjay isn't far behind, grossing north of $306 million to date.)