Focus on box office masks true popularity of movies

It's been a summer of big numbers at the movies.

A dozen films – including “Iron Man,” “Hancock” and “Wall-E” – each have made $100 million or more in ticket sales. “The Dark Knight” has raked in almost $518 million, supplanting “Star Wars” as No.2 on the list of all-time box office leaders and fueling speculation it could beat 1997's “Titanic” to become all-time champion.

Industrywide, box office receipts totaled almost $6.9 billion as of last weekend, only slightly behind the same point last year, when movies went on to take in a record $9.7 billion, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracker Media by Numbers.

What studios don't talk about is how many people actually show up in the theaters.

Adjusted for a rise in the average ticket price, attendance is down almost 5 percent.

But America's love affair with the movies is now written in the language of box office, numbers that once interested only studio accountants as a measure of whether a film would pay for itself.

Hollywood isn't likely to correct the disconnect because studios have seen the power of the dollar figures. They can slap “No. 1 Movie in America” banners on their films, knowing that being near the top of the list on opening weekend can mean life or death for a movie.

“It used to be movies people talked about would be the top 10; then it was the top five; now, most of the sound bites you hear are about the top three,” said Chuck Viane, president of distribution for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

But consider this: the $7.16 today's average moviegoer paid to see “The Dark Knight” could have bought three tickets to “Star Wars” in 1977.

“I get more e-mails on this subject by laypeople,” Dergarabedian said. “The general public picks up very quickly that if a movie makes $100 million in 2008 versus 1998 that's going to be a different animal.”

Dividing the total gross by the average ticket price, determined by the Motion Picture Association of America, a major studio trade group, Dergarabedian estimated “The Dark Knight” has sold 72.3 million tickets. By comparison, an estimated 169.5 million tickets were sold for “Star Wars,” adjusting for ticket prices in 1977 and again in each of the five years when the movie has been rereleased.