Despite Upcoming Tentpoles, Movie Admissions Expected to Be Down From Last Year

2010 may mark the first box office downtick in four years. Then again, last Dec.'s release of "Avatar" helped the industry collect roughly $1 billion in the last three weeks of the year.

Forget about the holidays bailing out Hollywood.

It's now clear that movie admissions will be down from last year, despite film distributors still having holiday tentpoles such as Tron: Legacy and Yogi Bear still to open. In fact, after three consecutive year-over-year weekend downticks to start the holiday box office season, it remains to be seen if the industry can mark a new high in theatrical revenue.

Failing to do so would mean the first box office downtick in four years.

"We could still have a record box office year, but it's not certain at this point," National Association of Theatre Owners spokesman Patrick Corcoran said.

At $9.79 billion in year-to-date box office, the industry is outpacing by just 1.9% a similar portion of 2009, when by year's end distributors rang up $10.6 billion in box office. The industry collected roughly $1 billion in the last three weeks of '09, when 3D phenom Avatar was stoking ticket sales.

Meantime, the average movie ticket cost 4.7% more in 2010 than a year earlier, at $7.85. Assuming the industry matches last year dollar-for-dollar in the home stretch, that would make for 1.37 admissions by year's end and mean an almost 3% downtick in 2010 ticket sales.

Hollywood hasn't set a new high in movie admissions since 2002, when theater operators sold 1.57 billion tickets sold. Corcoran said exhibitors are happy enough with this year's business.

"It goes up and down," the NATO rep shrugged. "Admissions are better to look at in the longer term. Neither box office nor admissions are going to go up all the time, though the box office has gone up the last four years and the last three years set new box office records.

"It's almost always about the mix of films and audiences just didn't respond to them the way they did in the prior year," he said. "But you can say that we have been ahead of last year almost all year long."

Corcoran said 3D releases seem to be working well enough, despite an insufficient number of screens to handle such movies.

"Done right, 3D adds significantly to movie theaters' bottom lines," he said. "With 3D penetration only now reaching 18% of U.S. screens -- and with continued 3D screen growth in the new year -- we expect that 3D will continue to add to moviegoer enjoyment and theaters' profits."

One possible cause for Hollywood's failure to match its performance a year earlier in '10: There were fewer studio releases this year. Major studios released 112 movies last year, while just 103 films will reach movies screens by the end of December.