The big picture gets brighter for movie theater owners

LAS VEGAS — After a year of box-office doldrums and a period of ugly clashes with studio executives over when movies should be released into the home, theater industry leaders sounded considerably more optimistic about the outlook for their industry.

John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theatre Owners, told hundreds of exhibitors gathered Tuesday at the industry’s annual trade show in Las Vegas that there were many reasons to celebrate, including a turnaround at the turnstiles.

Domestic box-office revenue jumped 23% in the first quarter, after a 4% decline last year. Worldwide ticket sales reached a record $32.6 billion in 2011.

“When we gathered here at Caesars Palace one year ago, we were in the midst of a cold streak,” Fithian said. “The environment here at CinemaCon 2012 is decidedly optimistic. The movies have come back to our screens, and the patrons have returned to our seats.”

Fithian noted that for the first time in more than a decade, every major Hollywood studio brought films to the convention, a sign of confidence in their slates. Some of the movies promoted to exhibitors Tuesday included Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.”

In addition to the improved box-office climate, relations with major studios have improved markedly after a year in which Fithian publicly blasted plans by several studios to distribute movies through video-on-demand services just eight weeks after the films’ theatrical release.

Since then, studios and exhibitors have been engaged in dialogue about finding ways to work together, Fithian said. He added, “2012 looks like the year when we all work to grow the pie together and stop warring over the pieces.”

Motion Picture Assn. of America of Chief Executive Christopher J. Dodd also touted the improved box-office results, but said the industry needs to find new ways to stay relevant to people who may have lost interest in the moviegoing experience.

“We need to make the case — both to the new, younger, ‘connected consumers’ and to others who wonder if the moviegoing experience remains something special, something to be savored and enjoyed, something so innovative and creative — that it cannot be duplicated at home, no matter how many boxes they have,” Dodd said in a speech at CinemaCon.

He noted that the industry faces long-term challenges, including boosting theatrical attendance in the U.S. and Canada, which fell 4% last year.

“One-third of the public in the U.S. and Canada no longer goes to the movies,” the former senator said. “We need to bring them back. I firmly believe that with our artistic and commercial vision, and your stewardship of the great moviegoing tradition, we can do it.”

Dodd also renewed his call for finding common ground with the technology industry to curb the theft of intellectual property. The MPAA backed tough laws, nicknamed SOPA and PIPA, to crack down on online piracy, but the bills were derailed by opposition from Google Inc. and other tech giants, along with a strong public backlash.

“If protecting intellectual property results in an uninformed brawl between Hollywood and Silicon Valley, both sides will suffer,” Dodd said. “But more importantly, so will millions of Americans who rely on these intellectual property industries for their jobs, and on the consumers whose lives have been enriched by their efforts.”

In a press conference, Dodd reiterated that the bills were “dead,” but said there were non-legislative steps that could still be taken to address the problem, such as sending out copyright alerts to consumers when they download pirated material.

Dodd also defended the MPAA’s ratings system but said the group needs to be “far more transparent” about how it arrives at its decisions. Criticism of the MPAA’s rating system has stepped up in the wake of the group’s decision to give the documentary “Bully” an R rating because of some profanity.

Fithian said the ratings system was better than the alternative, such as government censorship.

“What people care about in L.A. is vastly different than what they care about in Omaha,” Fithian said.