Hollywood is witnessing a phenomenon it hasn’t seen in more than a decade -- movies with legs.
Pictures that hang in at the box office over multiple weekends -- known as “having legs” among theater operators and studio executives -- are contributing to a sharp rise in attendance and ticket revenue. The upsurge is a welcome respite for Hollywood, where weak consumer spending has undercut DVD sales, long the backbone of the movie industry.
So far the recession doesn’t appear to have dampened trips to the multiplex, where ticket prices in major cities now top $8 and a tub of popcorn can cost more than $5. Attendance at movie theaters in the first nine weeks of 2009, typically one of the slowest periods for ticket sales, is up 14.8% over last year, according to Media by Numbers, a box office tracking firm. Box office revenue is up 16.5%.
Holdover films such as Sony Pictures’ comedy “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” 20th Century Fox’s thriller “Taken,” Focus Features’ animated film “Coraline” and Warner Bros.’ “Gran Torino” have continued to attract audiences for several weeks, some even months, after they debuted.
Fox Searchlight’s low-cost “Slumdog Millionaire,” which opened in a handful of theaters more than three months ago and swept the Oscars, continues to be a must-see. In theaters for 17 weeks, the drama about an uneducated teenager from Mumbai who becomes an unlikely winner on India’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” game show, is still the fourth-most-popular movie in America.
Theater operators and movie distributors attribute the upswing to a diversity of offerings that are drawing a wide range of moviegoers.
“Our industry continues to demonstrate that as long as there are appealing films that are connecting with the audience, we are very much recession-resistant,” said Mike Campbell, chief executive of Regal Entertainment Group, the largest operator of theaters in the U.S.
Executives say films with staying power are unusual in today’s competitive environment, where several movies open each weekend and appear on thousands of screens. Consequently, releases tend to crowd one another out, triggering significant declines in their second and third weekends at the box office.
“There are more films staying around longer,” said Ted Mundorff, chief operating officer of Landmark Theatres, which operates the most popular art house multiplex on the Westside of Los Angeles. Mundorff estimates that his circuit’s business is up 25% this year, thanks to such pictures as “The Wrestler,” “The Reader,” “Milk” and “Slumdog.”
Although the bump in ticket sales has been good for challenged theater operators, whose business hasn’t markedly grown in years and has been propped up by higher ticket prices, it means less for the movie studios because they earn the bulk of their profits from DVD sales, which have fallen sharply.
Jeff Blake, head of worldwide marketing and distribution at Sony Pictures, said he has been surprised at how movies such as “Paul Blart,” “Taken” and “Gran Torino” have held on to audiences.
“We haven’t seen this since ‘Titanic,’ where multiple pictures are doing three, four or five times their opening weekend gross,” Blake said. James Cameron’s 1997 disaster epic, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslett, remained the top-grossing picture for 15 consecutive weeks largely because of young women making repeated visits to the theater. “Titanic,” which played in theaters for nine months, generated $1.8 billion in worldwide ticket sales -- still a record.
Blake thinks the recent legs phenomenon is a sign that a broader audience is showing up. In recent years, the box office has been propelled by younger moviegoers, who tend to see a film the weekend it opens. “Now you’re also getting an older audience going week two and three,” Blake said.
“Blart,” which debuted in mid-January with $31.8 million, has more than quadrupled its gross. “Taken” bowed in late January with $24.7 million and has grossed $118 million after six weeks. When Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” expanded into wide release in early January, it grossed a surprising $29.5 million and has grown to $141.7 million to date.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers, said gross receipts for a movie typically drop 40% to 50% in the second weekend and films that hold up for five or six weeks are “really unusual.”
To be sure, there are current releases that fell off a cliff after opening weekend. Warner Bros.’ “Friday the 13th” had an impressive $40.6-million opening over Presidents Day weekend, when young horror fans rushed out to see it. But its ticket sales plunged 80% on the second weekend. Disney’s “Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience” plummeted 78% in its second weekend, and the studio’s comedy “Confessions of a Shopaholic” dropped more than 50% in its second weekend.
Generally, however, theater operators are enjoying the ride.
Tim Warner, president of Dallas-based Cinemark USA, the country’s third-largest theater operator, said that although every industry was going through treacherous times, “I don’t know if any business has as good news as the movie business.”