Hollywood is poised to end the year with a record $9.7 billion in domestic movie receipts, up 4 percent from 2006, but the gain will be fueled largely by higher ticket prices, box office tracking service Media By Numbers said on Thursday.
A handful of holiday season hits, led by Will Smith's sci-fi thriller I Am Legend, propelled the movie business out of its autumn slump and set the stage for 2007's theatrical film revenues to surpass the 2004 benchmark of $9.45 billion.
Through Christmas Day, total US-Canadian ticket sales stood at about $9.3 billion, already matching the year-end tally for 2006, when revenues grew by 3.8 percent.
But analysts said much of the increase was a function of ticket price inflation that offset a lack of growth in film attendance. Media by Numbers said ticket prices were up about 4 percent from last year.
Movie admissions are expected to remain nearly flat for the year, with Media By Numbers projecting a scant 0.17 percent increase over 2006 to 1.42 billion tickets sold. That would still be down considerably from the high-water attendance mark of 1.6 billion admissions in 2002.
Admissions were especially hard hit this year during a string of post-summer movies with somber themes, like Michael Clayton and war-related dramas In the Valley of Elah and Rendition. The films were praised by critics but left audiences cold.
I Am Legend, grossing more than $150 million since its record December opening two weeks ago, helped reinvigorate the market, along with Alvin and the Chipmunks and last weekend's top film, the Nicolas Cage adventure sequel National Treasure: Book of Secrets.
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"Those movies really turned things around, giving us a nice boost at the very end of the year," said analyst Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers.
All three movies are emblematic of the kind of escapist fare that was most successful this year -- adventures and fantasy themes, family films and comedy, he said.
Sequels, too, were a big part of the equation, especially the trio of "threequel" blockbusters that launched a record $4 billion-plus summer season in May -- superhero tale Spider-Man 3, computer-animated storybook satire Shrek the Third and Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End.
Each grossed well over $100 million in its debut weekend, an unparalleled cluster of smash openings that provided momentum for a string of summer hits that followed, including Transformers, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Simpsons Movie and The Bourne Ultimatum.
Brandon Gray, president of online movie publication Box Office Mojo, was less enthusiastic about sequels and the overall health of the industry.
He said only one sequel this year, The Bourne Ultimatum, exceeded its franchise predecessor at the domestic box office. He added a greater number of wide-release films this year, a record 189 playing in 600 theaters or more, helped account for this year's revenue gains.
The year started off with first-quarter hits like geriatric biker comedy Wild Hogs, the Will Ferrell ice-skating spoof Blades of Glory, the warrior epic 300 and the comic thriller Disturbia.