By BROOKS BARNES, NYT
LOS ANGELES — Despite a modest increase in 2007 box office receipts, moviedom is trudging into January with a droop in its shoulders.
Ticket sales at North American movie theaters totaled $9.7 billion, a 4 percent increase over the previous year, according to Media by Numbers, a box office tracking company. But attendance was flat, after a narrow increase in 2006 and three previous years of sharp declines. Movie fans bought about 1.42 billion tickets last year, according to Media by Numbers. The high watermark of the last 10 years came in 2002, when moviegoers bought about 1.61 billion tickets.
The results last year were largely driven by expensive sequels like “Spider-Man 3” (the top-grossing film) and “Shrek the Third” (the runner-up), although a handful of expert marketing campaigns turned some oddball entries like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” into bona fide hits. One surefire franchise was born to Paramount and DreamWorks in “Transformers” (which placed third).
Nine of the Top 10 grossing films were science fiction, fantasy or animation. The sole exception (unless you count the mock-historical “300”) was Universal’s action thriller “The Bourne Ultimatum,” which placed sixth with $227 million in domestic ticket sales.
As the movie industry turns its attention to 2008, the dark “No Country for Old Men” is showing box office legs, and one film in particular is already shaping up as a home run. Early results for “Juno,” about a quirky teenager who becomes pregnant, have outpaced those for the indie hits “Little Miss Sunshine” and “Brokeback Mountain.”
“The critical acclaim and award recognition have magnified the movie,” said Peter Rice, the president of Fox Searchlight, which is distributing “Juno.”
But box office results are always a game of glass half-full and glass half-empty, and the half-empties this time seem more prominent.
DVD sales continue to slump both domestically and abroad. The private money that has washed over Hollywood in recent years is starting to slow, investment bankers say, as more hedge funds go home with little to show. And movie executives are worried about the impending collision between striking screenwriters and the important awards shows.
The strike, now in its ninth week with no new talks scheduled, is starting to weigh more heavily on the movie business over all. Until now, the damage has been mostly confined to television, which operates with a shorter production pipeline. But as the strike drags on, movie executives — and their corporate bosses — are starting to worry about having enough time to put together their mega-movie slates for summer 2009.
At the box office the happy surprises of 2007 were almost all confined to escapist offerings like “The Game Plan,” a Walt Disney release about an N.F.L. quarterback and his young daughter, or sophomoric comedies like “Superbad,” a Sony release from the producer Judd Apatow.
But studios have instead churned out gloomy message movies, and more are on the way, noted Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Media by Numbers.
“There were some great films, but the appetite wasn’t there,” he said. Movies rooted in the Iraq war or terrorism — “In the Valley of Elah,” “Rendition,” “Redacted” — particularly struggled. A glut of serious-minded awards hopefuls canceled one another out. Signs of trouble lurked even during the blockbuster-packed summer, in which ticket sales surpassed the $4 billion mark for the first time. Sequels, with the notable exception of “Bourne,” the third in a series, were generally not well reviewed and sold fewer tickets than their second or first installments.
“Shrek the Third,” “Spider-Man 3” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” all marked low points for these franchises at the domestic box office when ticket sales are adjusted for inflation, according to Box Office Mojo, another tracking service.
(The studios note that more than half of the ticket sales for each of those titles came from overseas. While there are no reliable independent data for overseas ticket sales, entertainment trade publications estimate that foreign receipts for the six biggest studios increased 9 percent in 2007 over a year earlier, to $9.4 billion.)
Stars did not seem to interest moviegoers, with marquee names playing to empty seats. Angelina Jolie flopped with “A Mighty Heart,” about the murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, and Nicole Kidman’s career grew chillier with the North American collapse of “The Golden Compass.” Among the men, Tom Cruise struggled to avoid blame for a dead-on-arrival “Lions for Lambs,” and Brad Pitt drew shrugs for “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.”
One big exception: Will Smith cemented his status as a top box office draw — and perhaps the biggest star in the business today — with robust results for “I am Legend,” a Warner Brothers release about a man wandering a post-apocalyptic Manhattan. The picture has sold $195 million in tickets since its Dec. 14 opening, with another $61.3 million coming from overseas, according to Box Office Mojo.
(Denzel Washington also gets credit for helping to turn Universal’s “American Gangster” into a $184 million hit, although he appears to be having a harder time with the just-opened “Great Debaters.”)
Of course results vary by studio, and some are entering 2008 on a high note. Walt Disney, for instance, has played the game better than most.
“Ratatouille” overcame early skepticism about its rat-in-the-kitchen subject to become both a global blockbuster and a critical darling. “Enchanted,” about an animated princess who comes to life, continues to chug away in theaters, and “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” is a slam dunk. That action film, starring Nicolas Cage, sold $124 million in tickets domestically in its first 10 days of release, according to Box Office Mojo.
Mark Zoradi, president of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, cited a recent decision to focus more intently on the company’s brand as a catalyst for its performance. “The Disney name continues to be enormously successful with audiences,” he said.
Twentieth Century Fox appears to be able to sell just about anything. That studio has set the standard for effective Internet marketing by coming up with ways for fans to personalize messages. “The Simpsons Movie,” with its $526 million in total ticket sales around the world, benefited from Simpsonize Me, a Web promotion (simpsonizeme.com) that allowed visitors to animate pictures of themselves. Fox used a similar promotion to fuel “Alvin and the Chipmunks.”