Superhero hits and franchise favorites couldn't pull the box office out of its 2014 slump.
After a shaky summer and a fickle fall, the box office reached an estimated $10.3 billion in 2014, down about 5.2% from 2013's record of $10.9 billion. Industry experts expect attendance at theaters to be down a similar amount.
Other than some surprise hits, there were fewer blockbusters this year than there were in 2013 — and plenty of sequels that didn't live up to the hype. There was also a dearth of animated family films, unlike last year when Disney's "Frozen" set records, pulling in more than $400 million at the domestic box office.
"This year the industry couldn't catch a break," said Paul Dergarabedian, a senior media analyst for research firm Rentrak.
But industry executives expressed high hopes for a better year in 2015.
"We have a lot of reasons to be optimistic about what should be our biggest year," said Dave Hollis, Disney's head of distribution.
There were also a few bright spots last year for many of the studios. "Guardians of the Galaxy," from Disney's Marvel division, was a surprise summer hit and the top-grossing film of the year with about a $333-million haul in the U.S. and Canada.
It came in ahead of Lionsgate's "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 1" (about $309 million), Disney's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" ($260 million), Warner Bros.' "The Lego Movie" ($258 million) and Paramount Pictures' "Transformers: Age of Extinction" ($245 million), according to Rentrak.
During the crucial holiday season, three new films, the final "Hobbit" installment and limited-release awards contenders helped give the industry an end-of-the-year boost. The four-day holiday weekend was up 6.6% from the same time last year.
Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies" finished on top for two weekends in a row. The film, based on the book by J.R.R. Tolkien, has made almost $189.5 million to date in the U.S. and Canada.
Meanwhile, Disney's adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's musical "Into the Woods" and the Angelina Jolie-directed "Unbroken" exceeded tracking expectations, each debuting to about $46 million after launching Christmas Day.
But it still wasn't enough to reduce box-office declines earlier in the year, especially in the summer.
Aside from the lack of appealing options at the box office, a mix of unusual circumstances hurt the industry. The Fourth of July fell on a Friday, deterring movie attendance. And the World Cup, which ran from mid-June through mid-July, also offered up an alternative form of entertainment.
The death of actor Paul Walker in car crash in November 2013 was another blow to the industry. The accident pushed back the opening of "Fast & Furious 7" from July 11, 2014, to April 3, 2015, taking a big summer movie out of the lineup.
Altering release dates has become increasingly common in Hollywood as studios compete for the best time periods to show their movies and win over audiences.
In fact, 25 films that were slated for 2014 moved off this year's release schedule. Besides "Fast & Furious 7," films pushed back included "Jupiter Ascending," "The Good Dinosaur" and "Minions," according to Rentrak. Such large titles could have put 2014 above last year's total haul.
More recently, the holiday slate was upended when Sony Pictures Entertainment decided to yank its Christmas comedy "The Interview" from wide release in the wake of threats from hackers. Instead, the studio rolled out the film in more than 580 independent theaters and on various video-on-demand platforms.
"The Interview" was popular at theaters but made only about $3 million over the Christmas weekend because it wasn't released by the major chains. That's far below the estimated $25 million that Sony could be have generated if the movie had been released widely in more than 3,000 theaters.
"Just this mix of little and monumental things really added up," Rentrak's Dergarabedian said. "It put us in a situation where we were constantly trying to find this silver lining … whereas last year the silver lining just kept presenting itself to us."
The exhibition industry has also faced long-term stagnation in attendance as theaters face growing competition from Netflix, video games and other sources of entertainment.
"Lately I think the movie industry has suffered tremendously because of social media and the Internet," said Basel Aljarallah, a Kuwait resident who was visiting Pacific Theatres at the Grove last week.
"People don't have time to watch long movies anymore," said Aljarallah, who was waiting in line to see "Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb." "Pretty much they like to see everything instantly."
But Dergarabedian and others in the industry predict that 2015 could be a record year.
"The combination of films in 2015 could propel the industry to $11 billion in North America for the first time," Dergarabedian said.
Next year's slate includes the much-anticipated Universal Pictures movie "Fifty Shades of Grey," an adaptation of the popular romance novel by E.L. James that will debut in February; Marvel's superhero film "Avengers: Age of Ultron," which comes out in May; and "Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens," due out in December.
According to a survey from online ticketing firm Fandango, Disney's "Star Wars" is the most anticipated film of 2015. The J.J. Abrams-directed film takes place 30 years after the events of "Return of the Jedi." It's a new beginning for the franchise created by George Lucas, who sold his Lucasfilm empire to Disney in 2012 for about $4 billion.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" was voted the second-most-anticipated movie. "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2," the final installment of Lionsgate's young-adult franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, rounded out the top three.
The strong lineup should boost admissions next year, said Chris Aronson, head of domestic distribution for 20th Century Fox, which is releasing the third installment of the popular "Taken" franchise and "Kingsman: The Secret Service."
"I'm looking forward to having the industry reverse the declining attendance curve and have attendance actually go up in the domestic market," he said.
Staff writer Richard Verrier contributed to this report.