'Pirates' helps push '06 boxoffice tally up 5%


Boxoffice slump? What boxoffice slump?

The theatrical boxoffice might be under siege, but it fought back and actually gained some ground in 2006. As the boxoffice year, which will conclude with the New Year's holiday weekend, winds to an end, the total national tally is headed toward an estimated $9.42 billion, which would represent an increase of nearly 5% compared with 2005's $8.99 billion.

Certainly, records were set along the way: The biggest cheers surrounded the record-breaking opening of "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," which set both an opening-day and single-day record of $55.8 million when it bowed July 7, supplanting the mark established a little more than a year earlier, when "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith," debuted to $50 million on May 19, 2005.

"Dead Man's Chest's" opening weekend of $135.6 million also supplanted "Spider-Man's" $114.8 million record set in 2002. It also took just two days for "Dead Man's Chest" to pass the $100 million mark, another first.

That helped set the tone for what proved to be a much more hopeful year -- at points during the summer, the year-to-date boxoffice was running as high as 6%-7% above the comparable 2005 figures.

Some of those increases declined in the final months. Although Hollywood opened a number of holiday offerings that turned into hits, none was as big as 2005's crop of year-end blockbusters. This year's biggest November/December release is "Happy Feet," with more than $165 million to date. By comparison, November 2005 unleashed "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which conjured up $276.9 million by the end of that year.

In point of fact, despite a few statistical upticks, the overall boxoffice picture for 2006 did not change dramatically from 2005. If the Cassandras decrying the end of the theatrical business last year were overly alarmist, the Candides proclaiming that this year represented the best of all possible worlds were just as overly optimistic.

Throughout much of 2005, Hollywood fretted and the media raised alarms as national boxoffice grosses declined nearly 6% from the previous record-breaking year. Industry executives and outside observers began assembling a lineup of possible suspects: Increasing competition from DVD sales as the window between theatrical openings and DVD releases narrowed; dissatisfaction with higher ticket prices, expensive concessions and unruly audiences; competition from such rival platforms as video games and music downloads for the minds and disposable income of the ever-more-elusive under-25 males. An endemic change in viewing habits seemed to be taking place.

Nonsense, insisted the skeptics, who argued that the big problem in 2005 was simply too many bad movies. Make better movies, and the audiences will come back.

Last year was branded the Year of the Slump, when it suffered through a record 19 consecutive weekends during the first half in which boxoffice grosses fell below the numbers set during the comparable frames in 2004. But a rally that carried into 2006 began in November 2005, when a number of high-profile movies, beginning with "Goblet of Fire" and continuing through "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and "King Kong," broke through and began attracting audiences en masse.

For the most part, this year maintained that momentum. Overall, the movies might not have been necessarily better, but moviegoers found them more appealing.

Critics, many of whom applauded Johnny Depp's performance as rascally pirate Captain Jack Sparrow when he first sashayed into sight in 2003's "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," were less enthusiastic about its big, action-packed sequel -- again directed by Gore Verbinski and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer -- but audiences were eager to embrace the movie.

By year's end, it topped out at $423.3 million; by contrast, 2005's top-grossing movie, "Sith," had to settle for a mere $380.3 million.

Although this year is on track to become the fourth best-grossing year in Hollywood history -- knocking 2005 down to fifth -- the upturn wasn't strong enough to challenge 2004, which holds the record with $9.54 billion, or even to catch 2002 or 2003, which grossed $9.52 billion and $9.49 billion, respectively.

Discounting for a slight rise in ticket prices, the number of admissions increased only marginally between 2005 and 2006. Last year, admissions numbered 1.4 billion. This year, they are headed toward a projected 1.44 billion, a nearly 3% increase.

Drill down through the numbers, though, and not that much really changed. In fact, by some standards, 2006's crop of hits were not quite as robust as the biggest movies of 2005 -- or years before that. Only one film passed $300 million this year and last, while three films reached more than $300 million in 2004 and two each were in that category in 2003 and 2002.

In 2005, seven movies crested the $200 million mark, with "Sith" going on to top $300 million.

This year, "Dead Man's Chest" might have gone on to pass the $400 million mark -- a mark that wasn't reached in 2005 -- but only five other films grossed more than $200 million domestically during the year, two fewer than last year.

In addition to "Dead Man's Chest," this year's select class of $200 million-plus winners includes "Cars" ($244.1 million), "X-Men: The Last Stand" ($234.4 million), "The Da Vinci Code" ($217.5 million) and "Superman Returns" ($200.1 million).

In the $100 million-$200 million category, 2006 did improve slightly compared with 2005. Last year boasted 10 movies on that level, while 11 of this year's releases made the list.

In part, this year relied on the relative reliability of sequels and remakes to win over moviegoers. This year, there were five direct sequels in the top 20 as well as two series relaunches -- "Superman Returns" and "Casino Royale" (with $147.6 million to date). Last year's top 20 included only three direct sequels and one series relaunch, "Batman Begins."

This year's big winners were slightly more original; 2006's top 20 didn't include any remakes -- unlike last year's top 20, which included four.

Animated movies took up more top slots this year than in 2005, when three animated films reached the top 20. This year there were five, with Pixar's "Cars," the second highest-grossing movie of the year, easily outdistancing the competition.

Given all that animated fare, it's not surprising that there was no room for an R-rated movie in this year's top 10. In 2005, "Wedding Crashers," in fifth place with $209.2 million, was the top-grossing R-rated movie; this year, "Borat," in 13th place with nearly $125 million to date, took that honor.

Shifting to the indie sector, 2006 also showed some weaknesses. Following last year's pattern, genre movies released by indie outfits led the roster: Lionsgate's "Saw II," which grossed $87 million, was the leader in 2005, while this year, Dimension's horror spoof "Scary Movie 4" ($90.7 million) and Lionsgate's "Saw III" ($80.2 million) led the field. As far as more traditional indie fare goes, the big winner in 2005 was Warner Independent Pictures' "March of the Penguins," with $77.4 million. (Focus Features' Oscar-winning "Brokeback Mountain" eventually would gross $83 million, though at year's end it had collected just $15.1 million.)

This year, by contrast, the biggest nongenre indie movie is Fox Searchlight's "Little Miss Sunshine," which has picked up nearly $60 million to date, though hoped-for Oscar noms could boost that tally.

There were more wide releases (movies bowing in more than 1,000 theaters) this year than last -- 160 vs. 145. But fewer movies received ultrawide bows of 3,000 theaters or more, as those releases were scaled back from 55 in 2005 to 52 this year.

Possibly as a result, the average opening-weekend gross for a new film fell from $17.6 million in 2005 to $16.9 million this year. On average, movies debuted in slightly fewer theaters -- 2,543 this year vs. 2,591 last year -- but scored a slightly lower per-theater average. This year it was $6,663, compared with $6,782 last year. As for average second-weekend drops, they were slightly steeper this year -- 45% vs. last year's 43%.

With so many of the statistical markers appearing to tread water, the theatrical release business did appear to be holding its own. But does that mean the boxoffice declines that bedeviled first-half 2005 have been halted and a genuine recovery is under way? Or does it suggest a yearlong pause in an inevitable decline?

Next year's lineup includes several movies that could head into $400 million-plus territory -- "Spider-Man 3," "Shrek the Third" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" -- and help to lift 2007's boxoffice above 2006's level. If that does happen, then the boxoffice revival will genuinely have taken root.

Brian Fuson contributed to this report.