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Getting a Picture of the Moviegoer

Times Staff Writers

To Bob Tucker and his wife, Susan, going out to the movies is more than an activity -- it’s an ideology.

“We don’t believe in big-screen TV,” said Bob, a 51-year-old Rancho Park lawyer who likes the communal experience of sitting with an audience in the dark. Besides, added Susan, 44, usually when they rent movies to watch at home, “we fall asleep.”

To Adam Nobel, however, seeing a movie in a theater can be a drag. What with people talking or using their cellphones, “often I come out wanting to beat someone up,” said Nobel, 31, who subscribes to the rent-by-mail service Netflix and has TiVo hooked up to his 53-inch TV. What’s more, said the owner of a West Los Angeles bar, “most of the stuff in the theaters is marginal.”

That said, Nobel and the Tuckers turned up at the Pacific Theatres Culver Stadium 12 last weekend to see “Walk the Line,” 20th Century Fox’s biopic about singer Johnny Cash. They were part of a surge of moviegoing that made for a national boxoffice bonanza, according to estimates released Sunday.

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Fueled largely by the Cash film and the Warner Bros. juggernaut “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” now both in their 10th day of release, ticket sales for the five days beginning Thanksgiving Eve totaled well more than $200 million.

If those numbers hold up, the last several days will go down in the box-office record books as the second-biggest Thanksgiving weekend ever. For weeks, studio executives have acknowledged (and theater owners have insisted) that 2005’s continuing box-office slump signals a broad dissatisfaction not with the moviegoing experience but with the particular films Hollywood is making. Last weekend, The Times resolved to test that premise, at least anecdotally, in an informal, completely nonscientific survey.

At two movie theaters, a video rental outlet and an electronics store, four dozen Southern Californians -- adults and kids -- were asked about how they watched movies, whether their habits were changing and, if so, why. Their answers, though by no means definitive, say a lot about the ever-evolving role of entertainment in modern life.

As of Sunday, this year’s cumulative box-office take continued to lag behind last year’s by about 6%, or about $475 million. Of the 47 weekends so far in 2005, only 14 have done more business than the comparable weekends in 2004.

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Taylor Schneider thinks she knows the reason. “Movies aren’t as good. Many are violent -- they’re not interesting to me,” said the 56-year-old West Hollywood lawyer. “And the ticket prices are high. I can rent a movie for $5.”

But give Schneider something she likes -- a musical, say -- and she’ll happily pay. On Sunday, she was at the AMC 14 at the Westfield Century City shopping mall to see “Rent,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway show, which took in $18.1 million over the holiday weekend.

Beyond the ticket prices, Suzy Martinez, 42, said she worried about one indirect cost of theatergoing: concessions.

On Thanksgiving Day, she and her 6-year-old daughter, Gabriela, were perusing the cartoon section at the Blockbuster at the corner of 3rd Street and Normandie Avenue.

Gabriela, resplendent in pumpkin-dotted white tights under a frilly red-and-white velvet dress, was considering renting the animated hit “Shrek 2,” which she has watched “over and over,” she said.

Renting, said her mother, just makes more sense. “I spend more” at the theater, Martinez said, as Gabriela twirled on the heels of her white patent leather Mary Janes. “I have to buy too much candy.”

But to Rainbow Johnson and her companion, Bryan Hayes, sharing a tub of popcorn is part of the allure of the theater.

“Snacking in the dark -- I love it,” said Johnson, an actress and a sometime catering company employee, who sat on a sunny bench in Century City waiting for her brother to accompany them to the Steve Martin movie “Shopgirl.”

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Asked how often they get to a theater, however, the 27-year-olds disagreed.

When Hayes said twice a month, Johnson rolled her eyes. “It’s more like once a month,” she said, “and only when I drag him.”

This year, Variety reported that males ages 13 to 25 were seeing 24% fewer movies in theaters than that age group did just two years ago. The key factor, audience research service OTX found, was the perception of higher prices for moviegoing, but survey participants also said they were spending more time on activities such as surfing the Internet and playing video games.

Standing in the game aisle of Blockbuster, Francisco Perez, 13, and Edgar Estrada, 12, seemed to illustrate that point. Edgar said his last trip to a movie theater was “a long time ago,” and Francisco said that though he liked to see scary movies in the theater, he also bought cheaper bootlegged copies.

Kids aren’t the only ones buying pirated movies. Tony Willard, who was waiting to see “Walk the Line,” said that when he liked a movie he had seen in the theater, he was likely to buy a copy to watch on his 60-inch TV, which he had equipped with six surround-sound speakers.

“A guy comes to my office weekly, selling movies for $4 to $5 a DVD,” said Willard, 30, who runs his own employment agency. Asked whether he meant pirated DVDs, he said, “Yeah, I guess that’s what you’d call it.”

Convenience is what drives the decisions of many consumers who talked to The Times. Jeff Baughn, for example, a Los Angeles computer specialist, braved the crowds at the Best Buy store in Culver City looking for a portable DVD player.

The reason: Anticipating an hours-long airplane flight, he wanted something to amuse his 3-year-old son. How did he know a movie would do the trick? He recently took his son to the theater for the first time to see the documentary “March of the Penguins,” he said, and it went over big.

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Sunday’s box-office numbers seemed to bolster the premise that if there’s a movie worth seeing, people will go. The fourth “Harry Potter” movie, for example, continued to outperform the previous three in the franchise, taking in an estimated $81.3 million over the five-day weekend (bringing its total to date to more than $201 million). Paramount’s family comedy “Yours, Mine and Ours” made a respectable debut, taking in about $24.5 million over five days.

Warner Bros.’ “Syriana,” the oil-and-politics thriller that opened last Wednesday in just five theaters in the U.S. and Canada, had the best per-theater average this year for any movie opening in limited release. It took in $553,000, or about $110,000 a theater, over five days.

This year only one film has managed to take in more than $350 million domestically: “Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith.” Another yardstick is even more telling. This year only 15 films, including the new “Harry Potter,” have taken in more than $100 million. In both 2002 and 2004, 24 movies did so. In 2003, the number was 29.

But 2005 isn’t over yet. Box-office receipts from the Monday before Thanksgiving through the Monday after New Year’s Day typically account for about 15% of annual ticket sales, according to tracking service Nielsen EDI Inc.

This year promises to be no exception, with the special-effects-driven “King Kong” and “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” still to come, along with the much-anticipated “Munich” from director Steven Spielberg and the family sequel “Cheaper by the Dozen 2.”

Richard Troncone is doing his part to close the gap. The 54-year-old West Los Angeles resident, who works in the computer industry, sees three movies a week, always in the theater and even if the reviews are bad.

“How do you know a good movie unless you’ve seen some bad ones?” he asked, adding that his wife “thinks I’m crazy.”

It’s not just his fondness for what he calls “feeding off the energy of the people” in the theater that drives Troncone. Back in 1972, when he was in the Army, he saw 176 movies in one year. Now, he wants to top that.

This year he’s seen 151 movies, including the one he took in Sunday: the Usher star vehicle “In the Mix.”

He’s got just 34 days to see 26 more.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

At the movies

Top Thanksgiving weekends (5-day)

(In millions)

Total for top 12 movies: $232.2

Year: 2000

Top films: “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “Unbreakable,” “102 Dalmatians,” “Rugrats in Paris”

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Total for top 12 movies: $217.7*

Year: 2005

Top films: “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” “Walk the Line,” “Yours, Mine and Ours,” “Chicken Little”

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Total for top 12 movies: $212.0

Year: 2004

Top films: “National Treasure,” “The Incredibles,” “Christmas With the Kranks”

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Total for top 12 movies: $208.1

Year: 1999

Top films: “Toy Story 2,” “The World Is Not Enough,” “End of Days”

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Total for top 12 movies: $204.4

Year: 2003

Top films: “The Cat in the Hat,” “The Haunted Mansion,” “Elf,” “Gothika”

*Estimate

Source: Exhibitor Relations


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