Movie crowds dip to 16-year low as apathy lingers

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - Hollywood has more tricks in its bag than ever with digital 3-D and other new film tools. Yet as the images on screen get bigger and better, movie crowds keep shrinking _ down to a 16-year low as 2011’s film lineup fell well short of studios’ record expectations.

Through New Year’s Eve on Saturday, projected domestic revenues for the year stand at $10.2 billion, down 3.5 percent from 2010’s, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. Taking higher ticket prices into account, movie attendance is off even more, with an estimated 1.28 billion tickets sold, a 4.4 percent decline and the smallest movie audience since 1995, when admissions totaled 1.26 billion.

Just what has put the movie business in the dumps is anyone’s guess _ though safe bets include the tight economy, rising ticket prices, backlash against parades of sequels or remakes, and an almost-limitless inventory of portable and at-home gadgetry to occupy people’s time.

The year got off to a dismal start with what could be called an “Avatar” hangover, when revenues lagged far behind 2010 receipts that had been inflated by the huge success of James Cameron’s sci-fi sensation.

A solid summer lineup helped studios catch up to 2010, but ticket sales flattened again in the fall and have remained sluggish right into what was expected to be a terrific holiday season.

“There were a lot of high-profile movies that just ended up being a little less than were hoped for,” said Chris Aronson, head of distribution for 20th Century Fox, whose sequel “Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked” has been part of an under-achieving lineup of family films for the holidays. “The fall was pretty dismal. There just weren’t any real breakaway, wide-appeal films.”

Big franchises still are knocking it out of the park. “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2,” the finale to J.K. Rowling’s fantasy epic, was the year’s biggest earner and the top-grossing film in the series at $381 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide.

“Transformers: Dark of the Moon” pulled in $352 million domestically and $1.1 billion worldwide, while “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn _ Part 1” has climbed to $271 million domestically and $650 million worldwide.

Other franchises did well in 2011 but came up short of their predecessors on the domestic front, among them “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” “The Hangover Part II,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2” and “X-Men: First Class.”

Strong overseas business has helped make up for shrinking domestic revenues and declining DVD sales. But 2011 was the second-straight year that domestic attendance declined sharply, and audiences generally have been shrinking since 2002, when admissions hit a modern high of 1.6 billion.

It could be a case of the same-old same-olds, with fans growing tired of over-familiar characters and stories. It could be overcrowded weekends such as Thanksgiving, when studios loaded up on family films that cannibalized one another’s audiences. It could be the economy, with fans growing more selective on how often they spend their spare cash to catch a movie, particularly at a time when so many films play in 3-D with premium ticket prices.

And it could be the times we live in, when audiences have so many gadgets to play with that they don’t need to go to the movies as much as they once did.

“It’s not any one thing. It’s a little bit of everything,” said Jeff Goldstein, general sales manager at Warner Bros., whose Robert Downey Jr. sequel “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” has done solid business, yet is coming in well short of the first installment. “But consumers are being more specific with their choices on how to spend their money. The options are a little greater than they were a few years ago with gaming and social-networking opportunities.”

The year’s animated slate failed to produce a $200 million hit, the first time that’s happened since 2005. Likewise, comic-book superheroes slipped in 2011, the genre unable to deliver a $200 million hit for only the second time in the last 10 years.

Even Adam Sandler, one of Hollywood’s most-bankable stars, had a mixed year, managing a $100 million hit with “Just Go With It” but barely crossing $70 million with “Jack and Jill.”

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