Money grows on threes

Third time charms in record $9.62 bil b.o. year

It was the year of the thrilling threequel.

Film franchises have been all the rage for years, with annual lists of top grossers regularly dominated by sequels. But half of this year's 10 biggest films were sequels, with four of them representing third installments in money-machine franchises and "Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix" notching an incredible fifth "Potter" success for Warner Bros.

The familiar titles combined with plenty of lucrative new films — topped by toy-turned-movie "Transformers" from DreamWorks/Paramount — to push the domestic boxoffice to a record. Industry grosses totaled $9.62 billion in 2007, or 5% more than a year earlier and 4% more than the industry's previous high from 2002, according to Nielsen EDI.

Ticket sales also were up from 2006, with 1.41 billion admissions marking a 1% year-over-year uptick and the highest tally since 2004, EDI said Wednesday. The admissions boost, however modest, is especially good news for industryites, as a revenue hike without an accompanying rise in ticket sales tends to be shrugged off as inflationary numbers-padding.

"I think it's a great tribute to the industry that we had another record year," Warners domestic distribution president Dan Fellman said. "It wasn't too long ago that all the doomsayers were talking about the end of the motion picture industry as we knew it."

Indeed, several theater chains hit the bankruptcy skids between 2000-02, but subsequent reorganizations consolidated much of the exhibition industry into a handful of mega-circuits.

A rollout of digital projection systems in thousands of venues has helped facilitate the spread of on-screen advertising, further bolstering exhibitor finances. And the advent of 3-D screens and expansion of Imax's giant-screen footprint has helped line the coffers of distributors and exhibitors alike.

"Exhibitors have been building smart, new multiplexes, but they haven't been cannibalizing their business like in the past when they built one theater on top of another," Fellman noted. "And the (studios) have responded and really delivered the goods."

Jeff Blake, Sony's worldwide marketing and distribution president, said the boxoffice year offered "a really good combination of known franchises and some terrific new properties."

At his studio, that meant a surprisingly robust $121.5 million contribution by August comedy "Superbad" after May phenom "Spider-Man 3" — the year's top grosser — rung up $336.5 million.

"You had a franchise that continued to perform at the top of its game, and the other was something new and fresh that exceeded expectations," Blake said. "All studios had something of those sorts — something reliable and something fresh."

It's interesting to note that for all the success of sequels last year, not even Spidey's latest effort poked into the top-10 all-time grossers. "Spider-Man 3" sits at No. 14 on the all-time list, while "Transformers" — the year's top nonsequel at $319.1 million — is No. 18.

"We were thrilled this summer that audiences young and old embraced the movie," said Rob Moore, president of worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment at Paramount.

In a completely unsurprising announcement following the huge "Transformer" performance, execs at DreamWorks and Par have said they hope to release a sequel in summer 2009.

At Universal, which finished fifth behind Par, Warners, Disney and Sony in market share rankings, execs were taking understandable pride in registering the studio's biggest-ever domestic boxoffice performance, at $1.099 billion. An unprecedented six studios topped $1 billion in domestic grosses in '07.

Universal Studios president Ron Meyer lauded the "remarkable" first full year under Universal Pictures chairman Marc Shmuger and co-chairman David Linde.

Paramount and Warners topped the year's domestic and international marketshare rankings, respectively, helped by their summer successes with "Transformers" and "Phoenix."

But the year's late-breaking holiday releases — such as Disney's "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" and "Enchanted" and Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "Alien vs. Predator: Requiem" — played a big role in putting '07 into the record books.

A record summer boxoffice had the year tracking 7% ahead of a similar portion of '06 until a downbeat fall reduced that to 4% and had industryites drinking from half-empty glasses. Seasonal disappointments included DreamWorks/Par remake "The Heartbreak Kid," which underperformed significantly at $36.8 million, and Warners' Brad Pitt starrer "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford," which barely registered at $3.9 million.

Then the Yuletide glad tidings kicked in. Holiday releases marked a 2% seasonal uptick and boosted revenue sufficiently to mark an admissions uptick.

The year's final two weekends represented the best and third-best boxoffice sessions ever, and it's no wonder with the number of major wide openers hitting multiplexes over the holidays. A record eight movies hit wide release during the long Christmas frame, underscoring yet another '07 theme: More is more.

The surfeit of third-party film financings produced a crush of movie releases throughout much of the year, squeezing out more than a couple films caught in the crush of an overstuffed boxoffice frame. But collectively, it's hard to argue with the happy impact on industrywide stats.

Ticket sales were the highest in three years. In 2004, admissions totaled 1.48 billion, or 5% more than in '07, before plunging to 1.38 billion in 2005 and triggering the latest sky-is-falling forecasts from some quarters.

Domestic moviegoers paid an average $6.82 per ticket in '07, or 4% more than in '06, according to a National Association of Theatre Owners estimate based on the year's first three quarters.

EDI plugged in a slightly lower average ticket price in an earlier admissions projection (HR 1/2). But the boxoffice tracker used the NATO estimate in its final '07 data.