Sales at U.S. and Canadian theaters probably rose 5.7% to $10.8 billion this year, fueled by higher attendance, according to researcher Hollywood.com. That's despite proliferating home-video options and improving home-viewing experiences.
A gain of less than 2% in 2013 would give studios and cinemas $11 billion in annual ticket revenue for the first time, Hollywood.com 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 Lions Gate 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."
"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 U.S. 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 Jennifer Lawrence as the teen heroine Katniss Everdeen, marked an all-time high for March.
"Tent-pole movies are now year-round events," Paul Yanover, president of Comcast's Fandango online ticket sales service, said in an e-mail.
With average ticket prices unchanged this year at $7.94, attendance has risen in lockstep with revenue and is expected to reach about 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.
Mr. 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, a new "Star Trek" from Viacom'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: Time Warner 's "The Dark Knight Rises," which collected box office revenue of almost $1.1 billion globally. It was the third in the Christopher Nolan-directed 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, California, had nine films open in first place in North America, including "The Amazing Spider-Man," "Men in Black 3" and "Skyfall," the latest installment in the James Bond franchise.
"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% from 209 a decade ago, according to Box Office Mojo.
Disney, the world's largest entertainment company, will put out 10 movies next year, including two Marvel sequels, "Iron Man 3" and "Thor: The Dark World"; one Pixar sequel, "Monsters University"; as well as pictures based on "The Wizard of Oz" and "The Lone Ranger." The company released 38 films in 2003, including the former Miramax division, according to Box Office Mojo.
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 this year, up 263% 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 Lions Gate's Friedman.
The four largest U.S. exhibitors, led by Regal Entertainment Group, spent $2 billion over the past five years building new theaters and upgrading existing ones, according to data from regulatory filings.
Still, Mr. Friedman said, it's the films that put fans in seats. "When those lights go down, it's always about the movies," he said.