Will 'Star Wars' reverse declining cinema attendance?

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Movie theater owners all over the country are hoping that the new "Star Wars" will be a force to be reckoned with. More specifically, they're hoping the film will turn around a box-office slump that has gone on now for nearly three months, the longest straight decline in movie attendance on record. Analysts are predicting a galactic hit ($300 million to $400 million worldwide on opening weekend alone) that will fill theater lobbies.

They're also hoping that the rising tide of "Star Wars" hype will lift all boats, the theory being that a great night out at the cinema will encourage patrons to come back to see other summer blockbusters.

But several trends in consumer habits suggest that it will take more than Yoda and Darth to stem the waning attendance at movie houses across America. Not only are there more entertainment options competing with cinema, but the introduction of DVDs - with their crystal-clear picture and lucrative bonus features - make for a cheap alternative to the cinema in the comfort of one's home.

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"People have their DVDs, their video games, their iPods - it just takes a whole lot more than before to get people to come out to the movie theater," says Paul Degarabedian of Exhibitor Relations, a firm that tracks the box office.

The number of households with at least one DVD player is rising and projected to be 80 percent by year's end. Revenue from DVD sales and rentals, which is $21.2 billion per year according to the Digital Entertainment Group, has now surpassed box-office receipts, which stands at a little more than $9 billion a year.

If Americans went to the movies every week, as they did during cinema's heyday in the 1940s, "the national box office would be running about $2 billion a week, which it's not even close to," says analyst Christopher Lanier.

Audiences have cooled on the moviegoing experience, in which high ticket and food prices and hit-or-miss sound and projection systems in neighborhood theaters have driven people to create their own Friday night popcorn experience.

At the Studio City Good Guys electronics store here, people can outfit their own mini-movie-mogul home theater, complete with the cushy executive-style chair. Sales associate Mark Tilas says the company has refocused its emphasis on integrated film systems because the younger generation expects to have control over all their entertainment. "They don't like to go to the movies and have to mortgage their homes just to get popcorn and a drink," he says. "This way they don't have to put up with people kicking them in the rear or sticky floors or high ticket prices."

A bit farther downtown at the convention center videogame companies and players have gathered for their annual confab, known as E3. Many of the younger attendees say they rarely go to a movie at all, preferring to participate more actively in their entertainment.

Movie theater owners, who gathered in Las Vegas in March, know audiences have many more options these days. Owners such as Carol Moore say keeping audiences is about concessions, and she means the ones she makes as well as sells. "When gas prices rise," says the owner of the four theaters outside Kalamazoo, Mich., "people are watching their money, so we can't let ticket prices get out of reach. We try to keep them and the food affordable."

Finally, the future of the big-screen experience is on the mind of filmmakers, as well.

Some of the biggest names in the business are championing the need to upgrade the movie theater experience - or risk losing even more audiences.

George Lucas, who created "Revenge of the Sith" as a completely digital film, says technical innovations such as digital projection, enhanced 3D, and big-screen IMAX are all inevitable. Compared with the technical state of the art in most theaters today, he adds, "you can get better stereo systems in your own car."

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