LOS ANGELES (AP) — Studio executives expected their biggest summer ever this year as they loaded their lineup with huge action movies and superhero franchises.
What they got were two colossal blockbusters, a handful of backup hits and plenty of duds that just didn't deliver, resulting in what may prove the lowest summer movie attendance in 20 years.
While domestic revenues are projected to come in as the second-best ever, the number of tickets sold shrank to about 532 million from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, down 4 percent from summer 2011, according to box-office tracker Hollywood.com. If that holds by the time final ticket sales are counted through Monday, that would be the smallest audiences Hollywood has packed in for its busiest season dating back to 1993, the earliest summer revenue data maintained by Hollywood.com.
Revenues should finish at $4.27 billion from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, down 3 percent from the record of $4.4 billion set last summer, said Hollywood.com analyst Paul Dergarabedian.
"On paper, the summer of 2012 looked like a clear record-breaker. I think a lot of us were expecting we could beat last summer just based on the titles, the sheer number of blockbuster titles that were in the mix," Dergarabedian said. "But the audience is what makes and breaks the summer, and they didn't come out in the numbers we expected for a lot of these films."
Summer was ending quietly over Labor Day weekend, with overall revenues through Sunday down slightly compared to the same period a year ago. Domestic sales totaled $102 million, off 4.6 percent from last year's Labor Day weekend, according to Hollywood.com.
The horror tale "The Possession" debuted as the No. 1 movie with $17.7 million from Friday to Sunday, compared to $14.6 million for the top draw a year ago, "The Help," which joined "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to give Hollywood a strong seasonal finish that made summer 2011 a record-breaker.
Before this summer arrived, Hollywood was on a box-office tear, with revenues up as much as 20 percent over 2011's. Studio executives hoped that would continue into summer, when they had what looked like the best lineup they've ever offered.
Instead of beating last summer's record, though, revenues for the season fell for the first time in seven years.
The picture gets worse factoring in higher admission prices. While revenues this time were well above the $3.6 billion haul in 2005, the last time summer dollars dipped, this season's estimated 532 million admissions is well below the 563 million tickets sold in summer 2005.
In the 20-year span since 1993, Dergarabedian said the only year that comes close to this season's attendance was summer 2010, when 534 million tickets were sold. A strong Labor Day weekend could put this summer on par with 2010 attendance, but it's still a soft season considering expectations at the start, when the superhero sensation "The Avengers" launched with a record $207.4 million debut over the first weekend in May.
"The beginning of summer is like the first day of spring training or the opening of football camp. You have to hope your summer's going to be great," said Dave Hollis, head of distribution at Disney, which released "The Avengers." ''But it's hard to say what's going to connect or click."
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