LAS VEGAS – Americans haven't gone to the movies this much since President Dwight D. Eisenhower sat in the Oval Office.
Even after the Sept. 11 terrorists attacks and with the country in a recession, movie admissions for 2001 were the highest since 1959.
"A lot of people thought that after Sept. 11, the movie industry would go into the tank. ... but for some strange, and to me not bizarre, reason, the opposite happened," Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, said Tuesday.
Admissions last year were $1.5 billion, a 5 percent increase from the previous year and a 30 percent increase from 1991, according to the motion picture industry's key trade group.
Valenti said the numbers prove that even in uncertain times, people still want to be entertained.
Frequent movie-goers and family friendly films helped drive ticket sales even though the number of movie screens continued to decrease, Valenti said during ShoWest, an annual convention for theater operators meeting in Las Vegas through Thursday.
Frequent movie-goers — those who see at least 12 films a year — accounted for 82 percent of all admissions, he said.
The number of theater screens, which peaked at almost 38,000 in the middle of 2000, fell to 35,459 by the end of 2001, said John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners.
"This is a worldwide phenomenon for us, where admissions are going up during a time of economic challenge," he said.
Valenti called last year the "greatest box office year in film history," with total receipts of $8.41 billion.
A record 20 films reached the $100 million mark, with five reaching $200 million.
Of those five, none had an R rating, proof that people want more family oriented films, Fithian said. Of the top 20 films, only three were rated R.
"It's very simple, R-rated pictures don't sell," he said. "It's family pictures that work the best."
Fithian also said that after Sept. 11, there was speculation that movies needed to be less violent.
"It didn't take long to realize we didn't need to make any changes at all. Our film buyers are buying just like they did before Sept. 11," he said.
Valenti noted the news coverage of the burning and collapsing World Trade Center towers "and yet we're worried about putting out a movie that shows the same thing. That doesn't make any sense to me."
The average cost to make and market films from major film studios decreased 4 percent last year to $78.7 million. That's an average of $47.7 million to produce a movie and $31 million for prints and advertising, Valenti said.
The average ticket cost, which includes matinee and other cinema discounts, was $5.65, up from $5.40 the year before, Fithian said.
Valenti also said Hispanics watch the most movies per capita — 9.9 films a year, representing 15 percent of admissions. Blacks view 7.6 films a year for 11 percent of admissions and whites see 8.1 films a year with 68 percent of admissions.