Box Office Shocker: Movie Attendance Falls to Lowest Level in 16 Years

Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows Still - H 2011
Warner Bros.

Sherlock Holmes Game of Shadows Still - H 2011

Preliminary estimates show that 1.28 billion people went to the movies in North America in 2011, down 4.4 percent from 2010 and the lowest number since 1995; the good news: foreign box office revenues are at an all-time high.

As Hollywood heads into the final weekend of the year, there's no chance left of closing the yearly gap in domestic box office revenues, while attendance has tumbled to a troubling 16-year low.

According to projections, domestic box office revenues for Jan. 1-Dec. 31 will reach roughly $10.2 billion, down 3.6 percent from the $10.58 billion collected in 2010.

That means an estimated 1.28 billion people went to the movies in 2011 — the lowest turnout since 1995, when 1.211 billion people showed up at their local theaters. Attendance reached an all-time high in 2002 (1.57 billion), according to the National Association of Theater Owners.

PHOTOS: 2011's Hollywood By the Numbers: THR Year in Review

In terms of the year-over-year dip, attendance is down 4.4 percent from 2010, when 1.339 billion people went to the movies.

If there's any solace to be found, it's in the foreign box office, where the six major Hollywood studios have collected $13.53 billion in ticket sales this year — an all-time record, and up 6 percent to 8 percent over last year.

And the year-end holidays have brought some cheer in North America — Christmas theater traffic is up over last year, fueled by holiday tentpoles including Paramount's Mission: Impossible — Ghost Protocol and Warner Bros.' Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.

PHOTOS: 15 Biggest Box Office Flops of 2011: THR Year In Review

Brad Bird's Ghost Protocol is projected to win the four-day New Year's weekend with a gross in the $40 million range, putting its domestic cume north of $140 million. On Wednesday, the Tom Cruise pic continued to top the box office with a gross of $8.5 million for a domestic cume of $94.6 million (the movie will jump the $100 million mark on Thursday).

Overseas, Ghost Protocol should hit the $200 million mark by Saturday.

Twentieth Century Fox's Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked moved up a notch on Wednesday, coming in at No. 2 and grossing an estimated $6.6 million for a domestic cume of $69.8 million.

Game of Shadows, reteaming director Guy Ritchie with Robert Downey Jr.  and Jude Law, came in at No. 3, grossing $6.6 million on Wednesday for a domestic total of $103.6 million.

Game of Shadows is expected to come in No. 2 over the long holiday weekend, followed by Chipwrecked. After that, it could be a four-way race between Sony's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, DreamWorks/Disney's War Horse, Paramount/Sony's The Adventures of Tintin and Fox's We Bought a Zoo. Steven Spielberg directed both War Horse and Tintin.

David Fincher's Dragon Tattoo finished Wednesday with a domestic cume of $36.7 million, followed by Tintin with $28.5 million, We Bought a Zoo with $23.4 million and War Horse with $22.4 million. Of the big Christmas releases, Zoo has struggled the most.

At the specialty box office, awards contender The Iron Lady begins its one-week awards qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles, while Sony Pictures Classics opens awards darling A Separation, Iran's official selection for the Oscar for best foreign language film, in three theaters in L.A. and New York.