3-D surcharges heat up Hollywood’s summer numbers

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Fewer paying customers showed up for this summer’s movies than in any summer since 1997, but Hollywood still raked in record receipts of $4.35 billion. The answer to this seeming contradiction: 3-D.

“Inception” rating: An article about summer box office in Saturday’s A section said the movie “Inception” was rated R. The film received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Assn. of America. —

Thanks largely to higher admission prices for 3-D presentations — sometimes more than $15 per ticket in Southern California — revenue rose a projected 2% from summer 2009, even while the estimated number of tickets sold dropped 3% from last year to 552 million, according to, which tracks box-office numbers. The figures are closely monitored in the film industry, which typically draws about 40% of its annual theatrical revenue from the first weekend of May through Labor Day.

The summer’s top-grossing film, “Toy Story 3” from Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Studios, drew more than half its receipts from 3-D showings, and four of the top 10 box-office earners were in 3-D.

“There’s no question that if it’s a movie people want to see, they’re willing to pay for 3-D that enhances the experience,” said Paramount Pictures Vice Chairman Rob Moore.

Last year, as budget-conscious consumers cut back on more expensive leisure activities like travel, movie attendance actually rose 5%. This year, the business is returning to what has been a long-term trend of slowly declining attendance as consumers turn to a variety of other entertainment options, including video games, Internet content and other ways of watching movies such as DVD rental and digital distribution.

But rising prices are more than making up the difference. The average ticket price nationwide as of June was $7.88, up from $7.50 last year. Most of that increase came from 3-D surcharges averaging about $3.

Following the success of the late 2009 release “Avatar,” the movie industry plunged full-speed into 3-D this year, ordering more films to be produced in the process, converting conventionally shot movies to 3-D and increasing the number of 3-D theaters.

With seven movies released in 3-D this summer compared with four last year, and a growing number of screens to play them on, Hollywood is benefitting from a one-time temporary revenue boost thanks to changing technology. The trend could continue next summer when at least 11 movies are scheduled to be released in 3-D, but many in Hollywood concede that the public’s appetite for paying extra to put on glasses and see images leap out of the screen may already be reaching a limit.

Nonetheless, given the increasing number of options for consumers’ entertainment dollars and the nation’s economic woes, studio executives say they’re pleased they have been able to continue growing box-office revenue, particularly since this summer had one fewer weekend than last year.

“If you look at where the economy has been for the last couple of years and take where Hollywood has ended up, it’s not feeling that bad,” said Jeff Blake, vice chairman of Sony Pictures.

Some filmmakers, including “Avatar” writer-director James Cameron, and critics such as Roger Ebert have criticized the quality of 3-D effects on some movies converted after they were shot, such as this summer’s “The Last Airbender” and “Piranha 3-D.”

For those who thought it was always worth the $10 million or more it can cost to shoot a movie in or convert it to 3-D, however, this summer brought some painful lessons. Several high-profile releases bombed, including “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” “Step Up 3-D” and “Piranha 3-D.”

And for some movies, 3-D just didn’t make a big difference. The animated hit “Despicable Me” had trouble booking 3-D screens because so many were playing “Toy Story 3” and “The Last Airbender” when it opened. As a result, it generated only about 40% of its revenue from 3-D, but still racked up nearly $240 million in ticket sales. Audiences seemed content to enjoy the film without putting on a pair of cheap glasses.

“A year or two ago when 3-D was new, people were more willing to try out a 3-D movie just to see it,” observed Chuck Viane, Walt Disney Studios’ distribution president. “Now we’re back to there not being anything that makes a real difference except for the quality of the movie.”

The success of “Despicable Me” and the newest “Toy Story” also demonstrates the continuing resilience of family-friendly films. Only one movie in the top 10, “Inception,” was rated R; five were rated G or PG, including what many in Hollywood regard as the biggest surprise hit: Sony Pictures’ remake of “The Karate Kid,” starring Jaden Smith and Jackie Chan. Produced for about $40 million, it grossed $175 million domestically and will likely end up with a little more than that overseas.

Foreign moviegoers once again contributed more to the bottom line of Hollywood than those in the U.S. this summer, as total international ticket sales rose slightly to nearly $7 billion. For successes like “Karate Kid,” “Toy Story 3” and “Inception,” they added to already robust domestic performances. In other cases, foreign grosses made up for weak showings at home.

“Prince of Persia,” for instance, has brought in nearly $240 million overseas, compared with $90 million in the U.S. and Canada. “Robin Hood,” starring Russell Crowe, the heavily hyped sequel “Sex and the City 2,” and the Tom Cruise- Cameron Diaz action-comedy “Knight & Day” have all roughly doubled overseas their disappointing domestic performances.

Some movies, of course, were duds by any measure. Among Summer 2010’s biggest flops were kids’ movie “Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore,” comic-book adaptations “Jonah Hex” and “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World,” the big-screen version of 1980s TV show “The A-Team” and the live-action update of Disney’s animated classic “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.”