* International market up 6.7 pct; China up 36 pct
* China now largest international market
* 2013 off to slower start than 2012
By Sue Zeidler
LOS ANGELES, March 21 (Reuters) - Hollywood had a hit year in 2012, both internationally and domestically, as global box office ticket sales rose 6 percent to $34.7 billion, fueled in part by a big spike in China that made the country the largest international market.
Both the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), which released the yearly figures, said the overall strength reflected the fact that the top releases spanned several genres, from action movies like "The Avengers" to historical dramas like "Lincoln."
"The diversity of the movies was unusually strong. We had the kind of movie slate we need to see and people showed up," John Fithian, NATO president and chief executive, said on a conference call with reporters.
Fithian said the same magic has not held true so far for 2013, which has gotten off to a slower start. Box office revenues were off 12 percent year-to-date through the week ending March 17, according to Hollywood.com, which tracks box office trends.
"2013 is not performing as well as expected. The diversity was just not there," Fithian said. "In January, we had a lot of movies rated R with a lot of violence. There's been very little family fare," though he said he was more confident about this year's movie slate going forward.
In 2012, the foreign box office continued to be the strong driver for a second year in a row, with international ticket sales hitting $23.9 billion, up 6.7 percent from $22.4 billion in 2011, according to the MPAA.
The Chinese box office grew by 36 percent, making the country the largest international market, surpassing Japan, according to MPAA's annual Theatrical Market Statistics report.
In February 2012, China opened its market to more American movies. It did not lift its annual quota of 20 foreign films, but essentially expanded it through other concessions that pleased Hollywood. For instance, Beijing permitted 14 premium format films, such as IMAX or 3D, to be exempt from the quota, as will the 2D versions of the films.
The U.S. movie industry had long complained about China's tight restrictions on foreign films, which they blamed for increased demand for pirated DVDs in the region.
"China's building about 10 screens a day. There's a voracious appetite for product. Our films have done consistently well there," Chris Dodd, chairman and chief executive of the MPAA, said on the conference call.
The 2012 uptick in box office receipts was an improvement from the 3 percent gain in global sales in 2011, which had been hindered by a downturn at the North American box office, according to the MPAA.
In 2012, the U.S./Canada box office commanded $10.8 billion, up 6 percent from the $10.2 billion recorded for 2011, which reflected a 4 percent decline from 2010.
Topping off 2012's biggest selling films in the North American markets were Walt Disney's "The Avengers," which pulled in $623.4 million at the domestic box office, followed by Warner Bros' "The Dark Knight Rises," which raked in $448.1 million.