Social media, upgraded theaters help drive $11 billion year

LOS ANGELES -- It takes more than "Star Wars" to make an $11 billion year.

Disney and J.J. Abrams pushed 2015 over the mark days before its conclusion, but many factors helped make the year the biggest of all time -- including social media and better theatrical experiences -- which helped draw audiences away from their home entertainment centres and into the multiplex.

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In 2014, "The Interview" was released in theatres and online at the same time, and this year saw streaming service Netflix enter theatrical feature territory with "Beasts of No Nation" and "The Ridiculous 6," both of which played in theatres and online simultaneously, alarming exhibitors. Yet attendance at the movies was up around four per cent for the year, according to Jeff Goldstein, Warner Bros.' executive vice-president of domestic distribution.

It didn't hurt that 2015 started off with some significant momentum from "American Sniper," had the "Jurassic World" juggernaut in the summer, and then ended on the enormous high note of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," which on Wednesday became Disney's biggest domestic earner in just 13 days of release.

"It's like kicking the winning field goal at the end of the game. That's what 'Star Wars' did," said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst for box office tracker Rentrak.

The overall slate didn't look very different from years past, with 688 new releases. There were the near annual installments of franchises that continue to rake in the money ("Furious 7," "Avengers: Age of Ultron," "Spectre," "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2," "Mission: Impossible -- Rogue Nation"). And there were properties resurrected from years ago, some of which worked ("Jurassic World," "Star Wars: The Force Awakens") and some that didn't ("Fantastic Four," "Terminator Genisys"). There were franchise starters that hit ("Fifty Shades of Grey") and some that were dead on arrival ("The Man From U.N.C.L.E."). There were ambitious original ideas that succeeded ("Inside Out"), while others crashed and burned ("Tomorrowland," "Crimson Peak," "Jupiter Ascending"). Live action fairy tales flew ("Cinderella") and floundered ("Pan"). And there were the smaller investments that paid off big ("Pitch Perfect 2," "Creed," "Straight Outta Compton," "Trainwreck").

Universal, which ranked fifth in 2014, skyrocketed to become the top studio of 2015, thanks to enormous hits like "Jurassic World," "Furious 7," "Fifty Shades of Grey," "Minions" and "Pitch Perfect 2."

According to Nick Carpou, Universal's president of domestic distribution, the studio found success in scattering its diverse offerings throughout the year, finding audiences that might be underserved in certain months and translating that into big returns.

Social media also mattered more in the past year. Carpou, his industry counterparts and various box office analysts agreed that social buzz could make or break a movie almost immediately.

"I think that's how 'Jurassic World' started the weekend looking like a big success and ended the weekend breaking all records," said Carpou. "That's people telling people."

Disney, which ranked second, followed a very different strategy, focusing on 15 new releases (to Universal's 26) from their various brands, whether homegrown or acquired, like Lucasfilm, Marvel, Pixar and live-action reboots of their animated classics.

In third place, despite successes like "American Sniper," Warner Bros. struggled a bit more with some higher profile flops, such as "Pan."

"It's all about content. We've always known that. If it's something the public wants to see, they're going to come out," said Goldstein.

Fox, with big successes such as "The Martian" and missteps like "Fantastic Four," came in fourth, while Sony, which did well with "Spectre" and "Hotel Transylvania 2," placed fifth. Sony's smaller labels helped, too, with films like "War Room" and "The Perfect Guy."

Beyond the appeal of individual movies, exhibitors were also wising up to consumer demands. The days of sticky floored venues with small seats and smaller screens may never go away completely, but audiences have more options now in screen size, visual and audio quality, reserved luxury seating, and even gourmet food service, all of which usually means higher ticket prices.

"We're giving them choices and we're giving them choices at every price point. It's like when you buy an airline ticket," said Goldstein.

Erik Davis, managing editor of ticketing site Fandango.com, says this improved theatrical experience is becoming a big draw for people.

"I definitely think the more comfortable theatres are making it, the more people are inclined to go to the movies," Davis said.

The boutique chain Cinepolis boasts a full bar, leather reclining seats and in-theatre dinning with wait staff. Cinepolis currently operates in Southern California and Florida, with plans to expand to Texas, Virginia, Connecticut and Ohio in 2017. Meanwhile, bigger chains are clamouring to compete with these so-called "diamond theatres."

Technology, too, is being upgraded across the country from Dolby Atmos sound systems to IMAX screens, giving audiences a specific reason to seek out big movies in theatres.

Release dates in 2015 were particularly well-spaced, said Greg Foster, CEO of IMAX Entertainment. This allowed for multi-week runs of some of the year's biggest movies on the pricier IMAX screens.

"People who love movies love IMAX," said Foster. "We've carved out a position as the place that avid moviegoers see big tent pole blockbuster films."

But the 2015 celebration just makes everyone more focused on the year ahead.

"2015 is not the one-hit wonder of box office years," said Dergarabedian.



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