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Winter Box Office Up 11% — Will ‘Hunger Games’ Keep Money Rolling?

Ticket sales are not where they were in 2010, but studio executives are enthusiastic about upcoming films like ”The Lorax“ and ”The Vow“

After a lackluster 2011, the movie industry is showing renewed signs of life through the first month of the new year.

Thanks to a series of mid-budget hits like “The Devil Inside” and “The Grey,” not to mention a suddenly resurgent Tom Cruise and his latest “Mission Impossible” film, the box office is up 11 percent from the same period last year.

The numbers have yet to return to 2010 levels, when movie theaters packed in audiences thanks to “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland,” but it is a marked improvement from the previous year, when a series of duds such as “The Dilemma” and “Season of the Witch” put the box office in a deep hole.

Since January, the domestic box office has stood at $964.4 million, up from $866.1 million last year, but down from $1.2 billion throughout the first month of 2010.

Also read: The 8 Most Anticipated Movies of the Spring

It is still just a little over a month into the year, but studio executives are optimistic about the trend line.

“I totally believe it’s an omen for good things to come,” Sony President of Worldwide Distribution Rory Bruer told TheWrap. “Last year was a little tough for some people, but I think everyone is very excited about 2012. I think that everyone certainly has been hitting their target audience with product they wanted to see and in a way they want to see it.”

Replicating the box office performance of “Avatar” or “Alice in Wonderland” will be difficult, but Lionsgate’s adaptation of the best-selling novel “The Hunger Games” has franchise written all over it.

“The crown jewel of spring is ‘Hunger Games,’” a rival studio executive told TheWrap. “The debate is: will it be as big as everyone thinks it’s going to be. I’d be shocked if it doesn’t at least open in the $70- to $75-million range.”

Also read: Disney's $250M 'John Carter' Gamble: Otherworldly Hit or Cosmic Bomb?

Other upcoming films that have studios and theater owners feeling bullish include Spyglass Entertainment's romantic drama “The Vow,” Warner Bros.' big budget sequel “The Wrath of the Titans,” and the Universal's Dr. Seuss adaptation “The Lorax." 

There’s also a series of 3D makeovers to prior box office smashes, like “Titantic” and “Star Wars,” looking to recapture the massive numbers posted by last year’s re-release of “The Lion King.”

The one big problem spot, studio executives say is “John Carter.” The $250 million space adventure may prove naysayers wrong and become a big hit, but it will need to be one of the highest grossing films of all time just to break even.

The major thing that seems to be working this time, studio executives and observers say is a better mix of movies and an improving overall economy.

“The movie industry is recession resistant, in that we fare better than most other sectors of the economy, but we are affected,” Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Association of Theater Owners, told TheWrap. “People are really terribly worried about the economy, so they watch their dollars. When they look at the movies that are out there, it has to be worth their while. The solution is always better movies.”

In addition, Corcoran said that the industry has done a stronger job of targeting specific segments of the population with more targeted fare, such as “The Devil Inside” for horror geeks or “The Grey” for a slightly older set of moviegoers.

“We’re seeing movies that are appealing to people over 25  years old and to women — these are audiences that are out there, and they’ll come to the movies if you give them a reason to,” Corcoran said. “The industry has taken too broad-based approach in the past. Not every movie has to be for all four quadrants.”

One group that will have to return to theaters in greater strength, however, are teenagers. Industry observers say that a big part of the reason that he box office slagged during the tail end of 2011 was pitched competition from video games, such as “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” The video game racked up $1 billion in sales in 16 days, faster than "Avatar” — a period that not coincidently coincided with the slowest box office weekend since 2008.

"You've got a lot of moviegoers back in cinemas and feeling good about seeing movies,  and that's a positive effect of the January results,” Greg Foster, chairman, filmed entertainment at IMAX, told TheWrap  “For this to keep going, you need films that are relevant and game-changing, two-things that the Gen-Y crowd responds to, and there has not been a movie that has captured their attention like 'Inception' since 'Inception.’”

Foster said that looking ahead he believes this year will offer more for that generation of moviegoers. Not only will “The Hunger Games,” appeal to this set, but Foster believes that a string of summer films such as “The Dark Knight Rises,” “The Amazing Spider-Man,” and “Dark Shadows” will prompt the kind of water cooler buzz that was noticeably absent since “Inception.”

“They're looking for something creative and something where the technology is integrated into the design of the picture, and one thing that doesn't work is a paint-by-numbers model,” Foster said. “This year looks like a much more innovative year, which bodes well for our industry. " 

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