LOS ANGELES — Movie heroes who lifted ticket sales to a record in 2012, from Iron Man to Katniss Everdeen, are set to carry Hollywood to another high next year.
Sales at U.S. and Canadian theaters probably rose 5.7 percent, to $10.8 billion, this year, fueled by higher attendance, according to researcher Hollywood.com. A gain of less than 2 percent in 2013 would give studios and cinemas $11 billion in annual ticket revenue for the first time, it said.
While studios are making fewer films, they are focused on characters with global appeal that attract broad audiences. Action pictures, comedies and historical dramas all broke $100 million in sales during the past year, and theater upgrades that include 3-D, digital projection and more comfortable seats have lured guests back, executives said.
“We had a really great crop of movies,” said Rob Friedman, co-chairman of Lionsgate Entertainment Corp.’s film division, which released The Hunger Games and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn, Part 2, the third and fifth top-grossing releases of the year. “We had moviegoers who were re-energized.”
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, from Time Warner’s New Line Cinema and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, generated $84.6 million in opening weekend sales in the United States and Canada after its Dec. 14 release, a record for the month, according to researcher Box Office Mojo. The $152.5 million weekend debut for The Hunger Games, with Louisville-native Jennifer Lawrence as teen heroine Katniss Everdeen, marked an all-time high for March.
“Tent-pole movies are now year-round events,” Paul Yanover, president of Comcast Corp.’s Fandango online ticket sales service, said in an email.
With average ticket prices unchanged this year at $7.94, attendance has risen in lockstep with revenue and was expected to reach 1.36 billion in 2012, up from a 16-year low in 2011, according to Paul Dergarabedian, a Hollywood.com analyst. He expects prices to be little changed in 2013.
Dergarabedian’s forecast for $11 billion in sales next year hinges on the success of returning comic book characters and sequels, including Iron Man 3 from Walt Disney Co., a new Star Trek from Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.
Major studios have relied on popular characters from books and comics to attract fans to films, such as Disney’s Marvel’s The Avengers, the year’s top-selling movie at more than $1.51 billion worldwide, according to Box Office Mojo. At No. 2 with almost $1.1 billion globally: Time Warner’s The Dark Knight Rises, the last in director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.
Sony Corp. expects to be the top studio for 2012 domestically and worldwide, with ticket sales of $4.4 billion, according to the company. It’s the first time Tokyo-based Sony’s film unit has led the U.S. box office since 2006, according to Box Office Mojo.
Sony Pictures, based in Culver City, Calif., had nine films open in first place in North America, including The Amazing Spider-Man, Men in Black 3 and Skyfall, the latest James Bond film.
“It was one of those years where the majority worked,” Rory Bruer, Sony’s president of worldwide theatrical distribution, said in an interview.
The six largest studios produced or distributed 130 movies this year, down 38 percent from 209 a decade ago, according to Box Office Mojo.
Burbank, Calif.-based Disney, the world’s largest entertainment company, will put out 10 movies in 2013, including two Marvel sequels, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World; one Pixar sequel, Monsters University; and pictures based on The Wizard of Oz and The Lone Ranger. The company released 38 films in 2003, including those from the former Miramax division, according to Box Office Mojo.
International ticket sales continue to expand, holding at more than two-thirds of worldwide box office revenue. Rentrak Corp., another industry research firm, forecast foreign receipts to rise 2.7 percent, to $23 billion, in 2012.
The record results come as home-viewing options and the quality of the home-entertainment experience continue to improve. U.S. consumers spent almost $1.7 billion on online video subscriptions through the third quarter of 2012, up 263 percent from the same period in 2011, according to the Digital Entertainment Group, a studio-backed association.
Investments by theater owners in digital and 3-D projection, better sound systems, more comfortable stadium-style seating and higher-end concessions have boosted attendance and differentiated the experience from home viewing, according to Lionsgate’s Friedman.
The four largest U.S. exhibitors, led by Regal Entertainment Group, which has a theater in Lexingon, spent $2 billion during the past five years building theaters and upgrading existing ones, according to data from regulatory filings.
Still, Friedman said, it’s the films that put fans in seats.
“When those lights go down, it’s always about the movies,” he said.