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It’s Alive! Horror Flicks Help Restore Pulse at Box Office

Times Staff Writers

After a frightening drought, Hollywood is finally scaring up some business at the box office.

On Monday, official tallies confirmed that the video game-based thriller “Silent Hill” led the weekend with $20.1 million in ticket sales, cementing the horror genre as a cornerstone of what is shaping up to be a turnaround year for the movie industry.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 27, 2006 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday April 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Box office: A front-page article Tuesday about higher movie ticket sales said “Hostel 2" was one of the 25 top-grossing releases so far this year. The horror film’s title is “Hostel.”

Together with a string of family-friendly hits and a slew of star-heavy films that start landing next month, these gory offerings are breathing new life into a business that some had left for dead. So far this year, domestic ticket sales are up 6.7% over 2005, with theater attendance rising 3.4%.

To be sure, those gains come after one of the worst years in moviegoing history, when attendance hit an eight-year low. Compared with the same period in 2004, when Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” had already grossed $365 million, this year’s attendance is still lagging 4.8%.

But theater owners and studio chiefs say the improved numbers, combined with an upcoming summer slate loaded with crowd-pleasing comedies and family films along with lip-biting action thrillers and scary fare, are allowing them to breathe a bit easier.

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“So far, so good,” said Peter Brown, chief executive of AMC Theatres, the nation’s second-largest circuit. With the last five weekends outpacing last year, he said, “there is no panic.”

Paramount Pictures President Gail Berman sounded a similar note.

“When you give people something they want, guess what?” she said. “They come.”

Last year, flagging box-office receipts prompted many to speculate that a cultural shift was underway, with consumers shunning the communal experience of a darkened theater in favor of other entertainment options.

The Internet, iPods, video games and other high-tech attractions are increasingly vying for Americans’ attention and entertainment dollars. Sophisticated home theater systems offer a moviegoing experience free of pricey popcorn, seemingly endless ads and trailers, ringing cellphones and sticky floors. And moviegoers don’t have to wait as long as they once did to see a film on DVD.

But this year’s showing suggests that certain movies can still get people out of the house on a weekend night.

“Horror and family films are genres that people don’t necessarily want to wait for the DVDs,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co.

Of this year’s 25 top-grossing releases so far, about a quarter have been horror films, including “Hostel 2,” “Underworld: Evolution,” “Final Destination 3" and “When a Stranger Calls.” Then there was “Scary Movie 4,” a horror-comedy spoof that opened with a whopping $40.2 million and has grossed $68 million to date.

More than half of the 25 were family hits that included the animated sequel “Ice Age: The Meltdown,” the remake of “The Pink Panther” and the dog-led adventure “Eight Below.”

Next week, Hollywood starts rolling out its big guns for the summer season, with at least one major film premiering nearly every weekend into August.

May’s weekends will see the opening of the Tom Cruise action sequel “M:i:III,” the disaster remake “Poseidon,” the adaptation of the bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code,” with Tom Hanks starring, as well as the animated “Over the Hedge” and the sci-fi sequel “X-Men: The Last Stand.”

June marks the premieres of the computer-animated “Cars,” the Jack Black comedy “Nacho Libre,” the romantic comedy “The Break Up,” starring Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn, and “Superman Returns” -- Hollywood’s latest effort to revive the Man of Steel franchise.

In July, the Johnny Depp sequel “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” opens, as does “Miami Vice,” based on the popular 1980s cop series.

“No one has seen the summer movies, yet there is tremendous anticipation pulsing within audiences already,” said “Da Vinci Code” producer Brian Grazer.

All the while, Hollywood’s release schedule is dotted with horror thrillers. In June, “The Omen” is resurrected. And growing Internet buzz has made August’s “Snakes on a Plane” one of the summer’s most anticipated offerings.

“Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer believes that in the business of enticing audiences, success begets success. If enough releases in Hollywood’s summer lineup catch the public’s attention, he said, “hopefully people get back into the habit of going to the movies.”

Summer is a crucial season for the movie business, when 40% of movie tickets are sold. Last summer was largely a disappointment, with studios releasing such costly flops as “Kingdom of Heaven” and “The Island.” Summer box-office receipts fell 8.5% from 2004, and attendance plummeted 11.4%.

“I think what we learned last year was you can’t sell bad movies. We can’t fake people out with marketing, no matter how good it is,” admitted Amy Pascal, movie chief at Sony Pictures, which released the costly duds “Bewitched” and “Stealth” last summer. This year, her prospects for the season are better with “Da Vinci Code.”

Theater owners, who were quick to criticize last year’s movies for being out of sync with popular tastes, say they took away hard lessons from the experience. Now they are doing their part by sprucing up dilapidated theaters, rolling out digital projection and even trying to make pre-show ads entertaining. Theater chains also are considering blocking cellphone reception.

“It takes good movies and a good theater experience to bring people out,” said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners. “Both are happening now.”

Studio executives are also seeing signs that overseas audiences are coming back -- they now account for the majority of movie ticket sales. The international arena was weak in ’05. But this year, “Ice Age” alone has amassed more than $300 million abroad in just two weeks.

Is the latest surge a sign that a healthy box office is back for good? Theater owners and studio executives are hoping that 2006 at least lifts them out of the slump, laying the foundation for an even bigger year in 2007 with sequels to “Spider-Man” and “Harry Potter.”

Nonetheless, caution may be advised because moviegoers still have numerous and growing entertainment options with technology advancing rapidly.

“I’m not sure there isn’t some tectonic shift going on,” said Stacey Snider, who recently resigned as Universal Pictures chairwoman to head Paramount’s DreamWorks SKG. “There still seems to be forces at play that might have an impact on how people see movies.”

Warner Bros. President Alan Horn warns that studios still need to work harder than ever to entice audiences.

“There are lots of things competing for a finite amount of leisure time,” Horn said. “So it’s incumbent upon us to make movies and TV product that is as competitive and compelling as possible.”

But for now, there are stirrings of optimism. Said Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook: “I think people are genuinely excited about going to the movies.”


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