Movie attendance falls to a 16-year low in 2011

Los Angeles TimesJanuary 6, 2012 

— Hollywood dropped the ball in 2011, as the movie business saw a decline in ticket sales and attendance fell to a 16-year low.

As most in the industry had anticipated, year-end figures indicated that receipts in the United States and Canada dropped about 3 percent compared with 2010 to $10.2 billion, according to Hollywood.com. About 1.28 billion people headed to the multiplex in 2011, a decline of roughly 4 percent from last year, when 1.33 billion went to the cinema.

"The issues that keep me up at night about moviegoer attendance and our audience are certainly not lack of appetite for the movies," said Brad Grey, chairman and chief executive officer of Paramount Pictures, which had the biggest box-office gross of any studio in 2011 with $1.96 billion in domestic ticket sales. "There's an audience for everything - it's going to be about how we make up for lower sales at the box office and with DVDs through digital distribution. I wonder what the next incarnation of distribution is."

Indeed, Paramount's "Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" was one of the few bright spots of the holiday season at the box office, taking the top spot for the second consecutive weekend over New Year's. The fourth installment in the action franchise starring Tom Cruise collected a studio-estimated $38.3 million over the four-day weekend.

That lifted the film's overall domestic gross to $141.2 million, more than the $134 million the third film in the series made over its entire run in theaters in 2006. Now, it seems likely that the picture will match or surpass the tally of the first "Mission: Impossible," which grossed $181 million in 1996.

After getting off to slow starts in their debuts, "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" and "Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked" continued to slowly make up ground at the box office.

The "Sherlock" sequel took second place with $26.5 million over the long weekend, bringing its total sales to $136.5 million. That's still far less than the $166 million the first film had grossed in 18 days in 2009. But if the movie continues to play well in the coming weeks, it should come in not substantially below the original movie's ultimate gross of $209 million.

The third film in the animated "Chipmunks" series is following a similar trajectory, grossing $21 million this past weekend. The movie has brought in $97.4 million, compared with the $173 million the second film made during the same period.

"Our franchise has gotten younger, and family movies have been soft," said Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution at Fox, which produces the "Chipmunks" films. "I'm not going to be Pollyanna-ish about the box office this year. We know that attendance figures are slipping, and we need to reverse that by doing everything we can to put the best possible product out as an industry."

The third "Chipmunks" film was critically panned, unlike Steven Spielberg's well-reviewed "War Horse," which had an especially strong weekend. Propelled by older moviegoers, the World War I epic raked in $19.2 million over the holiday weekend. Since opening on Christmas Day, the picture has grossed an impressive $45.2 million.

Less staggering were the figures for David Fincher's "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," which collected an underwhelming $19 million. The American take on Swedish author Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel has made a so-so $60 million since debuting 13 days ago.

Also struggling in the crowded marketplace was "We Bought a Zoo," Cameron Crowe's family film that grossed only $16.5 million this weekend. The movie has taken in $44 million.

Spielberg's other current film, the animated 3-D "The Adventures of Tintin," is also not catching on with American moviegoers. Although the film is a hit overseas with more than $250 million in sales, it grossed $15 million in the U.S. this weekend to bring its domestic total to $50.8 million.

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