Summer movie-ticket sales fall 6% from 2009

Near-flat revenue largely because of shorter industry season

Summer 2010 won't set a box-office high, and fewer tickets have been sold than in any swimsuit season in more than a decade.

The industry's near-flat summer revenue is largely because of a shorter industry season this year, featuring 18 weekends compared to a year-earlier 19. The box-office season ends Monday, with projections showing $4.24 billion in industry coin collected between May 7 and Labor Day, or slightly 1% less than in summer 2009.

But summer admissions are down almost 6%, to a projected 538 million. Hollywood hasn't marked a new summer admissions high since 2004, when 642 million tickets were sold, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

Exhibitors charged an average $7.88 for summer movie tickets, up 4.5% from $7.54 last summer, NATO said. That compares with an almost 6% ticket-price jump between summer 2008 and last year, when the spread of premium pricing in 3D venues fueled a more dramatic inflation in moviegoing costs.

Hollywood marks its summer from the first full weekend in May through Labor Day, annually scheduling one of the season's biggest pictures to bow on the first Friday. This year, Paramount -- which tops seasonal market-share rankings with 19% and $775.5 million through Sunday -- unspooled the $312 million grosser "Iron Man 2" on May 7.

Reports elsewhere have cited a summer box-office high based on a May 1-Labor Day comparison with last summer. But Hollywood historically has eschewed such manipulations in marking industry records.

Similarly misleading, recent reports of big ticket-price hikes were based not on a yearly comparison of summertime price adjustments but year-to-date increases. NATO data show average ticket prices actually went down during the second quarter and projects flat or lower third-quarter pricing. (The $7.88 average ticket price used in calculating summer admissions assumes the same average will hold true through July and August.)

As for year-to-date box office, the industry appears to be holding its own in a difficult comparison with record 2009 receipts. Through Sunday, industry grosses were outpacing those from a similar portion of last year by 4%, at $7.53 billion, Rentrak said.

Among notable genre trends, family films marked a string of successes this summer, and Disney/Pixar's G-rated "Toy Story 3" was the season's biggest grosser at $406 million. The behemoth boasted a healthy mix of 3D and 2D playdates, with the double-screening offering 3D enthusiasts and more cost-conscious patrons an option of seeing the threequel in either format in most locations.

But a still-low installed base of 3D cinemas kept some pics from securing even 2,000 3D engagements. Exhibitors have been busily equipping auditoriums for 3D since financing for systems started to flow this year, but a steady increase in the number of 3D releases means demand for 3D screens will continue to outstrip distributor demand for some time.

"Almost every film that's come out in 3D has run into the prospect of losing screens earlier than it would have if there weren't such a competition for 3D screens," NATO spokesman Patrick Corcoran said Tuesday. "There aren't enough 3D screens to support more than 1 1/2 major 3D releases at a time."

The industry is adding 3D capability at a clip of about 500 screens a month, he estimated, with about 5,700 3D screens in place in the U.S. and 500 in Canada.

Summer 2010 produced 11 films that rang up more than $100 million apiece, three fewer than last year. That simply means there were too few attractive films in the market, Corcoran suggested.

"There's been too much emphasis on the increase in ticket prices," the NATO spokesman said. "It's too quick and easy to point to ticket prices and say that's the reason a summer does better or worse. The difference in almost any year is how attractive the movies are to an audience."

But, as usual, the summer triggered a few likely franchises.

Sony's Angelina Jolie starrer "Salt" looks likely to produce a second tale of CIA intrigue -- with the first ringing up a nifty $113 million and counting in seasonal b.o. -- and the studio's buddy-cop actioner "The Other Guys" also could book a sequel after crossing $100 million domestically. Universal's 3D animated feature "Despicable Me" will get a sequel after the family laugher fetched $236 million in summer coin.

Producer Avi Lerner promises a sequel to Lionsgate's ensemble actioner "The Expendables," with director Sly Stallone hinting there will be new faces in the mix of butt-kicking mercenaries on the next mission.

And speaking of new casting, Warner Bros. kin New Line is mulling a reboot of the "Sex and the City" franchise after "Sex and the City 2" disappointed with a $95 million domestic campaign.

The $271 million success of "Inception" could tempt Warners to propose a sequel. But with critics and the public alike lauding the action fantasy's originality, director Christopher Nolan no doubt would want to conjure a fresh approach to any sequel to the dreams-based fantasy.

"The way the move ended, Chris could develop another story, if he were so inclined," Warners distribution topper Dan Fellman said. "His plate is pretty full right now, but never say never."

A couple of would-be franchises definitely won't be sprouting sequels, however, as Universal's "Robin Hood" and "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" produced disappointing summer tallies of $105 million and $26 million, respectively.