Global ticket sales broke records in 2012, hitting $34.7 billion internationally, thanks to the strength of foreign markets and a rebound at the domestic box office.
Overall, the box office rose 6 percent last year, according to a state of the movie industry report released Thursday by the Motion Picture Association of America.
The findings were further evidence that Hollywood's obsession with crossing language and cultural barriers to broaden its footprint is paying off in dividends. In particular, China, with its burgeoning population of moviegoers, announced itself emphatically as the dominant foreign market last year.
It surpassed Japan to be the biggest international source of box office revenue, contributing $2.7 billion in total. That was a 36 percent jump from the previous year and may be partly attributable to the country loosening restrictions on the number of foreign films that can be shown in its theaters.
"They're building 10 screens a day," MPAA Chairman Chris Dodd said on a conference call with media. "There's a voracious appetite for our product and our films have done well."
He noted that there have been "bumps in the road," such as China's habit of scheduling tentpole releases like "The Dark Knight Rises" and "The Amazing Spider-Man" to open against each other, but said the economic climate there for U.S. films is vastly improved.
But it wasn't alone. All international markets, with the exception of Europe which fell 1 percent to $10.7 billion, grew in 2012. Even the United States and Canada, which saw declines in 2011, painted a more salutatory picture this past year.
Box office in North America rose 6 percent to $10.8 billion last year; the first time it has grown since 2009. Admissions in the U.S. and Canada also reversed a two year slide, increasing 6 percent to 1.36 billion, while ticket prices remained flat.
As a percentage of the total box office, international markets remained flat. They contributed 69 percent to the box office, the same percentage as last year.
One place where the movie business was sluggish was 3D. The rose-tinted glasses had been all the rage in recent years, as studios were eager to embrace a format that allowed them to tack on a healthy surcharge and get on the post-"Avatar" bandwagon.
Yet, the number of 3D releases fell from 45 to 36 in 2012. The format's contribution to the overall box office in the United States and Canada remained stable, with 3D movies contributing $1.8 billion in ticket sales. That was roughly in line with last year, but a drop from a high of $2.2 billion in 2010.
The numbers also showed that studios ignore Hispanic moviegoers in this country at their own peril. Although, Hispanics only represent 17 percent of the population in the United States and Canada, they comprise 26 percent of ticket buyers. Studios like Lionsgate and Universal have made a point in recent years of targeting this demographic, particularly with genres like horror that tend to appeal to Hispanics.
There was some heartening news for an industry that has feared it is losing the kids to other diversions like videogames and iPhones. In 2012, the number of frequent moviegoers who went to the cinema once a month or more increased in nearly every age group. The largest frequent moviegoing age groups (18-24 year olds and 25-39 year olds) both grew.
The popularity of adult dramas like "Lincoln," however, may have led to more gray hair in the audience. Moviegoers aged 40 to 49, accounted for 5.8 million frequent moviegoers in 2012, a big jump compared to the 3.3 million they made up in 2011.
The term "film" itself may soon become an anachronism. Particularly in this country, the conversion from film to digital is nearly complete. In 2012, the number of digital screens in the U.S. increased by 29 percent to 33,129. They now account for 83 percent of all U.S. screens, which spells bad news for those straggling theaters, many of them independently owed and operated, who have yet to pay tens of thousands of dollars for new digital projectors.
Globally, over two-thirds of the world’s nearly 130,000 cinema screens are now digital. There's a reason the mantra for theaters is convert or die.