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US movie business expects a 22-year low in ticket sales

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." (Lucasfilm Ltd./TNS)

Hollywood is celebrating the end of 2017 with astronomical sales from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” which is on track to soon exceed $1 billion in global ticket sales and eventually become the biggest movie of the year. But that won’t be enough to make the industry happy.

Although movie ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada are expected to fall just below last year’s record of $11.38 billion, the number of tickets sold is projected to drop 4 percent to 1.26 billion — the lowest since 1995, according to preliminary estimates from studio executives.

The falloff in ticket sales can be explained mostly by a few of movies that flopped, especially during the summer season, which posted the worst results in more than two decades. Even such hits as “Wonder Woman,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “It” couldn’t make up for a lackluster summer lineup populated by old franchises (“Alien: Covenant”) and poorly reviewed retreads (“The Mummy”).

However, the long-term decline in attendance reflects systemic challenges facing the industry. Audiences are spending less time going to the movies and are watching more entertainment on small screens and through streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon that are spending billions of dollars on original video content.

At the same time, while higher ticket prices have helped to offset attendance declines, they have made consumers pickier about what movies they’re willing to go to theaters see. And those increasingly discerning consumers turn to social media and online reviews Tomatoes to decide what’s worth their time and money.

“You cannot pull a fast one on the audience,” said Greg Foster, chief executive of Imax Entertainment. “The tools that are available for consumers to decide how and where to spend entertainment dollars are so vast. Consumers know what works and what doesn’t long before the product becomes available.”

Challenges at the box office are helping to fuel a wave of media consolidation. Walt Disney Co. this month announced a deal to buy entertainment assets from Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox for $52.4 billion.

Murdoch’s decision to sell much of his media empire was motivated at least partly by concerns about the future of the movie business in a world dominated by streaming, analysts said.

Cinema chains also are consolidating to better compete. Regal Entertainment Group, the nation’s second-largest theater owner, last month agreed to sell to British theater company Cineworld for $3.6 billion.

For studios, the box office has become a land of princes and paupers, with just a few movies and a couple of studios increasingly dominating the business. As of Dec. 17, Walt Disney Co. and Warner Bros. accounted for 40 percent of domestic market share. In 2012, the top two studios (Sony and Warner Bros.) accounted for only 30 percent of the industry total.

Of the 165 wide-release movies this year, the top 20 claimed 51 percent of ticket sales in 2017, a 2 percent increase from last year, according to estimates from distributors. Five years ago, the 20 biggest movies accounted for about 40 percent of annual grosses.

Nowhere was that trend clearer than last weekend, when the animated Fox movie “Ferdinand” opened against Disney’s “The Last Jedi.” The $111 million kids’ film about a fighting-averse bull opened with only $13 million, because of a lack of audience interest in the story and competition from Pixar’s hit computer-animated movie “Coco.” In contrast, the new “Star Wars” movie opened with $220 million.

Hollywood’s lack of fresh ideas also dampened ticket sales. Consumers clearly rejected aging franchises and retreads of old concepts and characters, especially during the summer months. Few people wanted to see Paramount’s R-rated “Baywatch” revival or Universal’s reboot of “The Mummy,” which was supposed to kick-start a series of monster movies. The same was true for the fifth “Transformers” movie.

On the other hand, movies with the right combination of originality and quality attracted big audiences.

Disney’s well-reviewed live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” and Warner Bros.’ “Wonder Woman” scored with audiences, grossing $504 million and $412 million, in the U.S. and Canada, respectively. Both offered fresh takes on characters that audiences wanted to see on the big screen. New “Spider-Man” and “Thor” movies similarly avoided franchise fatigue.

It also helped if the moves appealed to women who’ve been underserved by the studios. The three highest-grossing films — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” “Beauty and the Beast” and “Wonder Woman” — were all led by female protagonists.

“Girls Trip,” an R-rated romp that centered on four black women, was the highest-grossing live-action comedy of the year, in a moviegoing climate that was not kind to comedies.


© 2017 Los Angeles Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.