'Pirates' helps push '06 boxoffice tally up 5%

Boxoffice slump? What boxoffice slump?

The theatrical boxoffice might be under siege, but it fought back and actually gained some ground in 2006. As the boxoffice year, which will conclude with the New Year's holiday weekend, winds to an end, the total national tally is headed toward an estimated $9.42 billion, which would represent an increase of nearly 5% compared with 2005's $8.99 billion.

Certainly, records were set along the way: The biggest cheers surrounded the record-breaking opening of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, which set both an opening-day and single-day record of $55.8 million when it bowed July 7, supplanting the mark established a little more than a year earlier, when Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith, debuted to $50 million on May 19, 2005.

Dead Man's Chest's opening weekend of $135.6 million also supplanted Spider-Man's $114.8 million record set in 2002. It also took just two days for Dead Man's Chest to pass the $100 million mark, another first.

That helped set the tone for what proved to be a much more hopeful year -- at points during the summer, the year-to-date boxoffice was running as high as 6%-7% above the comparable 2005 figures.

Some of those increases declined in the final months. Although Hollywood opened a number of holiday offerings that turned into hits, none was as big as 2005's crop of year-end blockbusters. This year's biggest November/December release is Happy Feet, with more than $165 million to date. By comparison, November 2005 unleashed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which conjured up $276.9 million by the end of that year.

In point of fact, despite a few statistical upticks, the overall boxoffice picture for 2006 did not change dramatically from 2005. If the Cassandras decrying the end of the theatrical business last year were overly alarmist, the Candides proclaiming that this year represented the best of all possible worlds were just as overly optimistic.

Throughout much of 2005, Hollywood fretted and the media raised alarms as national boxoffice grosses declined nearly 6% from the previous record-breaking year. Industry executives and outside observers began assembling a lineup of possible suspects: Increasing competition from DVD sales as the window between theatrical openings and DVD releases narrowed; dissatisfaction with higher ticket prices, expensive concessions and unruly audiences; competition from such rival platforms as video games and music downloads for the minds and disposable income of the ever-more-elusive under-25 males. An endemic change in viewing habits seemed to be taking place.

Nonsense, insisted the skeptics, who argued that the big problem in 2005 was simply too many bad movies. Make better movies, and the audiences will come back.

Last year was branded the Year of the Slump, when it suffered through a record 19 consecutive weekends during the first half in which boxoffice grosses fell below the numbers set during the comparable frames in 2004.

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