Mini-Crowds At The Multiplex

The most eagerly anticipated holiday movie this year features an out-of-shape ex-superhero living undercover as an insurance adjuster. But for some Hollywood execs, the story line for Pixar Animation Studios' (PIXR ) The Incredibles is striking close to home: After years of bulking up, audiences at the nation's theaters are starting to look a mite puny. Even as Hollywood boosters insist that the year will end strongly, attendance at U.S. theaters looks set to fall.

Although Hollywood is loath to talk about it, the industry is in a funk. This year just 14 films have grossed more than $100 million at the box office, vs. 21 a year ago, according to Web site Even with blockbusters Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, and The Passion of the Christ, revenues from ticket sales so far this year are up a mere 2%, to $7.5 billion, says industry tracker Exhibitor Relations Co. And with Christmas on the horizon, the usual goody bag of muscular action films, sweeping dramas, and rib-shaking comedies seems thinner than usual.

Indeed, moviemakers have only higher ticket prices to thank for even the small gains they've seen. Attendance is down for the second straight year: After falling 4% in 2003, Exhibitor Relations says it's off 1.5% more this year. Heavily hyped flicks such as Paramount Pictures' (VIA ) puppet film Team America: World Police and Fox's comedy Taxi, starring Queen Latifah, have so far disappointed. That's fueling concerns that movie audiences, like TV viewers, are drifting away to their PCs, DVDs, and video games. Worse yet, a single night of Web surfing can kill a film, says Nielsen Entertainment. It found that getting panned by a site such as Rotten Tomatoes can erase the usual 20% hike a film gets from Friday to Saturday.

All that makes the task of creating box-office hype ahead of opening day more crucial than ever. To promote The Incredibles, Pixar and its distributor, Walt Disney Co. (DIS ), started joint promotions with SBC Communications Inc. (SBC ) more than a month before the computer-generated flick opened. Paramount has been airing nearly wall-to-wall ads on its Nickelodeon (VIA ) cable channel for The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie, which comes out on Nov. 19. To open Shark Tale, one of the fall's few hits, DreamWorks SKG spent lavishly for prime-time TV spots and staged a star-studded outdoor premiere in New York's Central Park. And some studios are beefing up their online presence to lure folks in from the Net: Disney is showing a 10-minute segment of its Indiana Jones-like action film, National Treasure, starring Nicholas Cage. "People have other things to do with their lives, and our job is to bring 'em back," says DreamWorks marketing director Terry Press.

The formula is simple enough. Says Chuck Viane, distribution president for Disney: "We just need a four-quadrant film, one like Titanic, that appeals to young and old, men and women." Hollywood thinks it has the goods, including The Incredibles, sequels to hits such as Meet the Parents and Oceans 11, plus extravaganzas such as Alexander and comedies such as Christmas with the Kranks. They'll need them all to resonate if they hope to turn the box office back into a superhero.

By Ronald Grover in Los Angeles

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