Even as domestic ticket sales stalled last year, the international movie business climbed to new heights.
A report released Thursday by the Motion Picture Assn. of America states that global box-office receipts for all films released around the world in 2011 reached $32.6 billion, up 3% over 2010 and 35% higher than five years ago.
The rise in global ticket sales reflects the rapid growth in overseas markets, particularly in China, where the box office grew by a whopping 35% to $2 billion in 2011 alone, according to the MPAA. That tied China with France as the second-highest grossing foreign territory. Japan, at $2.3 billion, was first.
China has been experiencing a multiplex-building boom as Hollywood studios and production companies sign deals to expand their presence in the world's most populous country, which recently took steps to ease its annual quota on the number of foreign movies it allows into the country.
"These numbers underscore the impact of movies on the global economy and the vitality of the film-watching experience around the world," Chris Dodd, chairman and chief executive of the MPAA, said in a statement. "The bottom line is clear: People in all countries still go to the movies, and a trip to the local cinema remains one of the most affordable entertainment options for consumers."
Ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada dropped 4% to $10.2 billion, compared with 2010, partly reflecting a $400-million decline in revenue from 3-D ticket sales and a crop of under-performing movies in the first quarter of 2011.
"It's all about the movies, and there wasn't any'Avatar'in 2011," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners.
The MPAA boasted that domestic ticket sales were up 6% over five years ago. But theater admissions — the number of actual tickets sold — dropped 4% in 2011 from the previous year, to 1.28 billion. And that's an 18% decline since admissions peaked in 2002, when 1.57 billion tickets were sold, according to the report.
Nonetheless, Dodd and Fithian said 2012 was off to a strong start and would get a big lift from big upcoming movies, including this weekend's "The Hunger Games"from Lionsgate and Paramount Pictures' action movie "G.I. Joe: Retaliation."
"We're looking forward to a tremendous year if the first couple of months are any indication as to where we are headed," Dodd said, noting that box-office revenue is up nearly 14% so far this year.
Domestic movie ticket sales continue to be fueled by repeated visits by frequent moviegoers, those who go to the movies once a month or more. Frequent moviegoers represent only 10% of the population but purchased half of all tickets sold in 2011.
Although fewer Hispanics visited theaters last year, they were more likely than any other ethnic group to go the movies, accounting for 24% of frequent moviegoers even though they represented 16% of the population. The number of Hispanic frequent moviegoers increased from 6.4 million to 8.4 million between 2009 and 2011, a positive development for the theater industry.
"We're very encouraged by those demographic trends and what they portend for the future," Fithian said.
The data also revealed long-term challenges facing the U.S. theater industry, including attracting younger consumers who have more entertainment options, such as video games. Last year, younger frequent moviegoers (those in the 18-to-24 age group) declined by nearly 1 million.
Also, it's becoming harder for studios to generate the box-office revenue they did in prior years because studios are releasing fewer movies. In 2011, MPAA studios released 141 movies, unchanged from 2010, but nearly one-third fewer than a decade ago.