Tough times at the box office

NEW YORK - APRIL 19: Movie goers wait in line for Tribeca Film Festival tickets at Tribeca Cinemas on April 19, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival) Bryan Bedder

Back in the golden age of movie-going, the words "THE END" on the screen meant the movie was over. Nowadays, many film fans worry that those same words might apply to the local movie theatre itself. Our Cover Story is reported by Tracy Smith:

When you look at the Oscar nominees of 2011, you gotta think it was a great year for movies . . . wasn't it?

Not if you ask Paul Dergarabedian, who tracks the box office every weekend for hollywood.com:

"Last year, 2011, we saw the lowest attendance in 15 years," said Dergarabedian.

The reasons why, he said, can fill seats in an empty movie theater: "The economy, that's one of the things I think that comes into play. When people are really having a hard time putting their money together, you know, filling their wallet, you have to pick and choose what you're going to spend your money on."

In the pre-TV glory days, movies were just about the only choice: the thrill of shared emotions, fantasizing, dreaming with eyes open and hearts full.

The year 1946, when "The Best Years of Our Lives" came out, was the best year ever for movies. About 60 percent of Americans went to the theaters every week.

Today, there are countless diversions - and far smaller (as well as different) movie crowds.

"The population that is going to movies less than they used to is clearly young men," said Sharon Waxman, who runs The Wrap, a must-read blog for Hollywood insiders

"Those people are now increasingly going to videogames and spending time on YouTube and spending time on Facebook," she said.

And, like Jeremy Realmuto in Oxford, Miss., renting movies instead of buying tickets: "It's $8 for the movies and $1.20 for one here," he said. "Then you have the comfort of your own home, especially if you have a big screen TV and surround, it's the same thing."

Some theater owners have picked up on that, and tried to bring the comforts of home, and then some, to the multiplex. Ipic Theaters VP Mark Mulcahy says attendance at his theaters was up in 2011.

His theaters feature waiters and waitresses, "actually trained to work in this dark environment," he said. "They're like ninjas."

But industry experts say what's served in seat counts less than what's showing on screens:

"I think it ultimately comes back to the quality of the movie," said Joe Pichirallo, a former studio exec and independent producer. Today he leads the undergraduate Department of Film and TV at New York University's Tisch School. He knows the first lesson of Hollywood: "Profit and successful box office trumps great reviews and Oscars all the time."

Yes, tonight's favorites made money. "The Artist": $73 million. "Hugo": $107 million. "The Descendants": $144 million.

Complete coverage: Oscars 2012

But what brings in the big crowds and big money are the so called "tentpole" movies - like "Avatar" - that draw men and women, kids and adult, bringing in over $300 million.

In 2011 - not enough blockbusters.

"How could that be when you have a 'Harry Potter,' a 'Pirates of the Caribbean,' a 'Twilight,' all released in the same year?" asked Smith.

"Because there were a lot of other movies in that vein that didn't work," said Pichirallo.

Patrick Corcoran, who heads media and research at the National Association of Theater Owners (NATO), said there were four movies that grossed $300 million or more in 2010. In 2010, only two. "It makes a difference," he said. "It's essentially the product. I mean, that's what happens every year. It's whether we have an up year or a down year, It's always going to be about what's in the theaters themselves."

And here's the tricky part: What ends up in the theaters today isn't necessarily dictated by the folks on Main Street, but by movie fans across the globe.

"We generally look at the domestic box office - that's a fallacy," said Waxman. "Because most of the money, two-thirds of the money is now coming from international."

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