Movie theaters pack 'em in

It could be the air conditioning, or the popcorn, or the video games in the lobby. It could be recession-squeezed entertainment budgets. It could even be the movies! Whatever the reason, Americans are flocking to their neighborhood theaters in record numbers, and Hollywood is jumping for joy.

Variety, the entertainment newspaper, calculates that 1982 is running almost 19 percent ahead of 1981 in box-office take, with final yearly revenue projected at more than $3.35 billion.

In the summer period alone, moviegoers bought more than 444 million tickets, at a record cost of some $1.38 billion. And the pace accelerated as the season wore on. Between Aug. 11 and Sept. 7, more than 114 million admissions were sold , despite a high ticket price averaging $3.14 nationally.

Ticket sales build slowly during most summers, starting mildly in June and working toward a midseason peak, then tapering off as Labor Day approaches. This year, though, earnings zoomed right away in June. As a result, many hit films played themselves out earlier than normal. Double-bill combinations of fading movies, designed to revive patronage, began running a month or so before Labor Day instead of waiting for fall.

Box-office analyst A. D. Murphy says the explosive June business may have been ''borrowed'' from the future. This could spell trouble, especially since box-office figures generally decline by 35 percent to 40 percent in the autumn months anyway.

As in recent years, a handful of hits accounted for most of the earnings, with eight movies drawing half of Hollywood's summer revenue. Leading the pack were ''E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial'' and ''Rocky III,'' which together pulled in 25 percent of the season's take. By contrast, 1981's big winners - ''Raiders of the Lost Ark'' (a Spielberg film, like ''E. T.'') and ''Superman II'' - made just 19 percent of the summer box-office total.

Of this year's champs, ''E. T.'' more than doubled the success of its rival, ''Rocky III,'' becoming the fastest moneymaker in Hollywood history. After just 66 days, reports Variety, the Steven Spielberg fantasy earned $140 million in rentals for Universal Pictures, making it a sure bet to pass ''Star Wars'' and become the No. 1 film of all time.

Close behind ''E. T.'' and ''Rocky'' are a half dozen runners-up, each of which has been tracked and charted by Variety. ''Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan'' fell off as the summer passed, but earned enough in its first four weeks to capture the season's No. 3 spot. ''Poltergeist,'' produced by the redoubtable Spielberg, opened moderately but kept its appeal alive for months on end. Like the ''Star Trek'' sequel, ''The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas'' made its big play early, creating a sizable stir in the box-office sweepstakes before its popularity began to dwindle rapidly.

After early concern that the super-expensive ''Annie'' might bomb, the family musical managed to hang on, slowly but steadily earning enough to come in No. 6 for the summer - and barely make good its huge cost of more than $40 million. ''Firefox,'' the Clint Eastwood thriller, started strongly enough to win the No. 7 position, though it followed the ''Wrath of Khan'' syndrome of sliding rapidly as the summer waned. Just the opposite happened with the season's biggest surprise, ''An Officer and a Gentleman.'' It didn't open until late July, and didn't fit the usual summer-film categories of action and fantasy. Yet it made a fortune, and - unlike most of the warm-weather hits - is still going strong.

Among the major studios, Variety calculates that Universal, Metro-Goldwin-Mayer/United Artists, and Paramount were the season's victors, each placing two movies among the top eight. Warner Bros. and Columbia each had one big winner, shutting out Twentieth Century-Fox, which failed to come up with a single blockbuster. For the year as a whole, Universal has the edge, with big earnings from ''Conan the Barbarian'' (which entered the box-office race long before the Memorial Day weekend) in addition to its summertime successes.

It's possible a fall rally could also occur based on movies not yet released. Since summer is the season for films of frivolity and fun, studios often hold their ''serious'' pictures for the fall.

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