January 3, 2010 / 10:22 PM / 8 years ago

"Potter", "Avatar" spur box office record in '09

<p>Actors James (L) and Oliver Phelps pose during a photocall to promote the film "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" in Madrid July 12, 2009.Juan Medina</p>

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Crowd-pleasing pics and extra-dimensional tix combined to lift Hollywood to new box office heights in 2009.

Sales rose more than 8% to a record $10.61 billion, while the number of tickets sold (i.e. admissions) climbed almost 4%.

Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" ($402.1 million), Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" ($302 million) and 3D phenoms such as Fox's "Avatar" ($352.1 million) and Disney/Pixar's "Up" ($293 million) helped set the new box office mark.

But admissions in the United States and Canada -- at 1.41 billion, compared with 1.36 billion in 2008 -- fell a bit short of beating the all-time record of 1.60 billion set in 2002. The box office year began January 5, with tracking firm Nielsen EDI always starting its calendar on the first business day after New Year's.

The race for some of the top spots in annual studio market share rankings went right to the wire, though Warner Bros. had the gold-medal position nailed down early and finished with an industry-record $2.13 billion and a 20% share.

Paramount finished second in a tightly bunched group of majors with $1.46 billion (13.8% share), and Fox was third with $1.45 billion (13.7%), according to EDI estimates. Sony was fourth on the year with $1.44 billion (13.6%), followed by Disney with $1.21 billion (11.4%) and Universal with roughly $900 million (8.5%).

The year's remarkable industry performance came despite predictions from some quarters that climbing ticket prices would prevent the theatrical business from displaying its usual recession-resistant ways. Equally of note, moviegoers' enthusiasm for 3D pictures shows movie theaters still offer a theatrical experience that can compete effectively against increasingly sophisticated home-entertainment systems.

"What we've seen with 3D releases this year, most recently with 'Avatar,' is a reinvention of the moviegoing experience," said Gerry Lopez, president and CEO of No. 2 chain AMC Entertainment. "It's definitely the direction the industry is going."

Sequels proved as strong as ever in 2009, with a $282 million theatrical run for Summit Entertainment's vampire romance "The Twilight Saga: New Moon" joining the "Potter" and "Transformer" pictures among the most successful '09 entrants in the tried-and-true category. Yet Fox's year-end box office bonanza with "Avatar" and Sony's overachieving 11 months earlier with "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" ($146 million) could boost industry enthusiasm for original concepts headed into the new year -- if only as a path to creating new franchises.

It's hard to see Fox not green lighting a follow-up to "Avatar" or Warners not producing a second "Sherlock Holmes" pic. (The latter, starring Robert Downey Jr., closed the year at $140.7 million through just 10 days of release.)

Meantime, 3D cinema has been great for movie theaters, but extra-dimensional theatrical releases can present an awkward mission for studios marketing the same movies as 2D home-entertainment titles.

"3D is very much here," said Adam Fogelson, recently installed as film chief at Universal following the studio's series of '09 box office disappointments. "But while we have absolutely seen an uptick in box office revenue, the movies that have been released in 3D have faced an even tougher challenge in that the DVD releases of 3D films have performed less well and enough to question whether the total revenue was greater than a 3D the film would have had in 2D."

Universal will release its first 3D movie next summer, when animated comedy "Despicable Me" hits theaters July 9.

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