Holiday hits, price hikes lift record '08 b.o.


It was a photo finish, but 2008 hit the wire in a furious gallop to post a 12-month domestic boxoffice almost 2% higher than the year- earlier tally, with an unprecedented $9.78 billion in estimated grosses.

Avid holiday moviegoing helped the industry leg it into the record books in the home stretch, though substantial ticket-price boosts helped pad the annual haul. Industry estimates put average U.S. ticket prices at about $7.20, or almost 4.7% higher than in 2007.

About 1.36 billion tickets were sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2008. That compares with a total 1.4 billion admissions the previous year.

"There were a lot of predictions this would be a really, really hard year for movie theaters, but this year in big ways and small ways turned out to be a really strong year," said Patrick Corcoran, media and research director at the National Association of Theatre Owners. "We had 'Dark Knight' in the summer, which was huge, and films grossing under $100 million apiece totaled $500 million more than the same category of films in the summer of 2007."

Bowing in July, Warner Bros.' Batman sequel "Knight" rang up a phenomenal $530.9 million to become the No. 2 domestic theatrical release to date, after 1997's "Titanic."

The Burbank studio thus easily copped distributor bragging rights with an industry-record $1.74 billion year, representing an 18.3% market share. Warners' other big releases included two successful adaptations of TV shows — "Sex and the City," produced by corporate kin New Line ($153 million), and "Get Smart" ($130 million).

"The year was sensational," Warners distribution president Dan Fellman said.

Warners had 12 weeks of films ranking at No. 1, more than any other studio. Its record boxoffice also means Warners has rung up more than $1 billion in an unprecedented eight consecutive years.

The studio's theatrical performance was enhanced by the midyear takeover of New Line distribution. Yet Warners would have enjoyed an even heftier boxoffice haul if it hadn't postponed the release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" from November to July.

Paramount, which took top domestic honors in '07, finished in second place on the year with $1.6 billion and a 16.4% share. The Melrose studio had the second-biggest domestic grosser with the Marvel Studios-produced "Iron Man," which registered $318.3 million domestically.

In addition to the iron-clad success of that Robert Downey Jr. starrer, Paramount also saw outsized tallies from Steven Spielberg's global phenomenon of a sequel — "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," a $317 million domestic grosser.

"The success of 'Benjamin Button' at the end of the year just capped off a fabulous year," Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore said.

"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, has registered $79 million in its first 11 days.

Sony was the year's No. 3 finisher with $1.28 billion and a 13.1% share, fielding a slate topped by the Will Smith starrer "Hancock" at $227.9 million.

"Not only did we have a terrific year, but almost every film we released this year was profitable," Sony distribution president Rory Bruer said. "That's a distributor's dream."

Data service Nielsen EDI will release its official annual statistics today, after weekend receipts are finalized. (partialdiff)