LOS ANGELES – A box office jolt from the magic kingdoms of Kong, Narnia and Hogwarts will close Hollywood's year with some holiday cheer, though not enough to offset the biggest decline in movie attendance in 20 years.
Domestic revenues at movie theaters may fall below $9 billion for the first time since 2001 after averaging $9.3 billion over the last three years. Factoring in higher admission prices, the number of tickets sold is expected to finish at about 1.4 billion, the lowest since 1997.
Before Thanksgiving, attendance had been running 8 percent behind 2004's. Huge crowds for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," the fourth installment of the boy conjurer's adventures at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, helped to whittle that deficit down to 7.3 percent by early December, according to box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
Even with the last-minute surge from two other fantasy epics, "King Kong" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," movie attendance likely will be down 6 percent or more for the year.
That marks the largest drop since admissions fell 12 percent in 1985.
Some studio executives and Hollywood analysts say 2005 just brought a generally weaker lineup of films. Others insist movie-goers are abandoning ship in favor of home theaters with big screens and booming sound, where fans can watch films on DVD only a few months after their theatrical release.
Driving to a multiplex, finding a parking spot, fighting for a seat and putting up with high concessions prices and other cinema hassles makes the comfort of home sound ever more appealing.
"One thing we sometimes overlook, especially people in the business, is the quality of the moviegoing experience," said Richard Roeper, a Chicago Sun-Times critic and Roger Ebert's co-host on TV's "Ebert & Roeper and the Movies."
"If someone's waiting through 20 minutes of commercials, you've got people behind you kicking your seat and talking on cell phones, do you think a lot of people might say, `You know what? I've got a great sound system, I've got a 50-inch plasma screen. I'm just going to wait three months until the DVD comes out'?"
In an Associated Press-AOL News poll last summer, 73 percent of adults said they preferred watching movies at home on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view than going to theaters. And if the 2005 lineup of films truly looked less appealing, it's no wonder so many people stayed home.
"I think it's all of the above, really. There's certainly a lot of competition for those entertainment dollars," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony, which scored an early 2005 hit with "Hitch" but delivered such flops as "XXX: State of the Union," "Stealth," "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo" and "Rent."
"I hate to sound Pollyanna about it, but I do believe that this is an anomaly," Bruer said. "Business will bounce back and over a period of time it'll fight its way back."
While studio honchos say it's premature to predict audiences will keep dwindling, 2005 marks the third-straight year attendance has fallen and the fifth year out of the last seven that theater crowds have shrunk.
But those declines came amid a broader upswing in movie attendance since the mid 1980s, with the number of tickets sold rising from just over 1 billion in 1986 to a modern high of 1.6 billion in 2002.
"When you look back over a long period of time, you find dips that are due to content," said Jeff Goldstein, general sales manager for Warner Bros., which released the "Harry Potter" and "Batman Begins" blockbusters but also the 2005 duds "Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous" and "House of Wax." "To have the type of growth we've had, it's not realistic for that to continue. You're going to have some good years and some bad."
This past year started well with early hits that produced a box-office upswing before a prolonged slump began in February. Most weekends since, revenues have been down compared to the corresponding period in 2004, with the downturn stretching to a modern record of 19 weekends in a row during one stretch.
Some Hollywood apologists note that 2004 had an expected $370 million infusion from "The Passion of the Christ," which lured millions of conservative Christians who ordinarily do not go to movies. Discount 2004's grosses by that amount and 2005 is right on par, they say.
On the other hand, the "Passion" bonus that padded 2004 revenues may have disguised the fact that the box-office slump actually started then and has now lingered almost two years. That would be a clearer signal that audiences could be growing tired of movie theaters — for good.
"I think it's too early to make that call. We'll have to wait and see the quality of the product for next year," said Wayne Lewellen, head of distribution for Paramount, which scored with "War of the Worlds" and "The Longest Yard" but struck out with "The Honeymooners" and "The Bad News Bears." "At least on paper, it looks like a strong kickoff next summer."
To be sure, early summer 2006 seems to have a lot more muscle than the weak lineup that preceded "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith," the season's first major hit.
Early May 2005 presented such uncharacteristically mute fare as "Kingdom of Heaven" and "Kicking & Screaming," a far cry from the popcorn flicks like "The Mummy" movies that typically open in that time frame to kick off summer.
Next May starts with Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible III" and "Poseidon," a remake of the disaster flick "The Poseidon Adventure," with Tom Hanks' "The Da Vinci Code," the superhero sequel "X-Men 3" and the animated tales "Cars" and "Over the Hedge" quickly following.
And with "King Kong" and "Chronicles of Narnia" likely to carry strong business over into January, the industry could be on a much better footing through the first half of 2006. Some critics have said "King Kong" could be the next "Titanic," the modern box-office champ with $600 million domestically and $1.8 billion worldwide.
"The attention devoted to box office this year has been negative, so I think it'll be a psychological boost for Hollywood to end the year on a positive note with `Kong' and `Narnia,'" said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations. "Also, the audience tends to follow the money, so if these movies really do well, they tend to get excited and want to go back to the theater."