NEW YORK (CNN/Money) -
The movie-going masses on Friday will learn at last the dark story behind Bruce Wayne's transformation into a masked crusader battling evil in Gotham. Hollywood is hoping "Batman Begins" is more about an end -- to what could soon be the longest box office slump in at least twenty years.
Domestic movie ticket sales from New Year's Day through this past weekend are down more than six percent, to $3.85 billion, compared to a year ago, according to sales tracker Exhibitor Relations. For 16 consecutive weekends starting in late February, the box office has fallen compared to the year-ago weekend despite a modest increase in the average ticket price.
If North American ticket receipts are down again this weekend, Hollywood will have matched the longest-running box office rut in recent memory, a 17-weekend funk set in 1985 when the lineup included "Desperately Seeking Susan" starring Madonna and "Fletch" with Chevy Chase.
"That's one box office record we don't want," said Paul Dergarabedian, the president of Exhibitor Relations.
Movie theater sales are important for building the buzz necessary to drive sales throughout the life of a release, from theater to home video to video-on-demand to cable. Hollywood pockets roughly half of every ticket sold, and looks to DVDs and merchandise sales for profits. Theater owners depend for their income on robust demand to boost sales of popcorn, pretzels and other concession items.
The downturn is causing concern within the industry that consumers are turning to other forms of entertainment, including increasingly sophisticated home theater systems that offer movie viewing, video games and Internet access. There's reason to worry: Exhibitor Relations reports that attendance so far this year is down about 9 percent compared to last year and 2003.
To avoid a neck-and-neck race with 1985's record, studios need the top 12 films this weekend to generate more than the $130.6 million that the Ben Stiller comedy "Dodgeball" and Tom Hanks' "Terminal" helped produce this time a year ago.
Dergarabedian says the box office blues could end this weekend, but he expects it to be close if it does. "Batman Begins," a Warner Bros. film, would need to sell more than $50 million tickets, he estimates.
"That's the movie that could get us out of the slump," said Dergarabedian.
Much ado about nothing?
Industry analysts were saying the same thing less than a month ago when "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith" and "Madagascar" were scheduled for release. While "Star Wars," a Twentieth Century Fox film, has so far grossed $337 million in North America and DreamWorks' "Madagascar" has taken in $134 million, neither one was able to pull the overall box office out of its rut.
Dergarabedian, for all his optimism about the revenue potential of "Batman Begins," acknowledges that one or two films alone can't revive the industry. "We need many films to do well," he said.
Some industry insiders claim that the reports about the box office slowdown have been overblown.
"It's stunning to me, the barrage of articles about the impending death of the movie theater," said John Fithian, the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. He cites data showing that movie theater attendance, while down since 2003, has returned from a low in the early 1970s to levels last seen in the late 1950s, when the television was still in its infancy.
"The long-term trend is positive," Fithian insists.
What's more, some observers note that last year's surprise blockbuster "The Passion of the Christ," which sold more than $370 million domestically, has made year-over-year comparisons difficult.
There's some truth to that. Factor out "Passion" and the year-to-date domestic box office would be up nearly three percent, according to Exhibitor Relations estimates.
The problem is, 2005 revenues are about three percent below 2003 figures, when "Passion" was just an unfinished Mel Gibson project.
Dergarabedian agrees with Fithian that the severity of the box office downturn has been exaggerated, but says it should not be dismissed outright. "We still have to acknowledge that we're down," he said.
Luckily, Dergarabedian blames a string of bad movies for the box office's struggles, not shifting consumer habits.
"More than anything (the slump) is product driven and that's far better news for Hollywood than if it was a cultural change," he said. "Product can be fixed. A few good movies can change that around."
If Batman can't save the day, Hollywood's hopes will turn to Steven Spielberg's "The War of the Worlds" on June 29.
For a look at other ways to spend money this summer, click here.