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Hollywood has first down year since 1991

Dollars down a hair, tickets down 4.5 percent

"Finding Nemo" was the top-grossing movie of 2003, a year which had great success stories but also notable failures.

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Box Office

LOS ANGELES, California (Reuters) -- Ticket sales at the North American box office last year fell for the first time since 1991, despite higher ticket prices and aggressive marketing that ensured strong opening weekends for Hollywood movies.

According to data issued on Sunday by tracking firm Exhibitor Relations, sales in 2003 fell 0.5 percent to $9.27 billion, from $9.317 billion in 2002. Those were the only two years where sales exceeded $9 billion, Exhibitor Relations President Paul Dergarabedian said.

Attendance -- or the number of tickets sold -- slid by 4.5 percent to 1.53 billion from 1.6 billion in 2002. A drop is not uncommon, but Dergarabedian said the slide was unusually steep. It now costs about $6.03 to attend a movie, up from $5.85 in 2002, and the $10 threshold has been broken in major markets.

A record number of 2003 releases crossed the century mark -- 25 and counting -- and moviegoers turned out in droves for such hits as "Finding Nemo" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." But 2002 was a hard act to follow, with highlights such as "Spider-Man" and new films in the "Austin Powers" and "Star Wars" franchises, Dergarabedian said.

Sequels used to be a sure thing, but several failed to generate much water-cooler buzz in 2003 despite strong openings. Disappointments included follow-ups to "Charlie's Angels" and "Legally Blonde," as well as the final two installments in the "Matrix" trilogy. And not all comic book heroes are destined for greatness, as "The Hulk" found out.

With that in mind, the studios' 2004 slates are heavy with sequels and comic book heroes. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" is set for release on June 4, followed by "Spider-Man 2" on July 2 and "Catwoman" on July 30. The latter film will compete for top honors with suspense director M. Night Shyamalan's thriller "The Village."

Dergarabedian was bullish for prospects in 2004, in part because of an easier year-on-year comparison. Already, sales for the first weekend of 2004 were tracking 14.5 percent ahead of the year-ago period.

Copyright 2004 Reuters. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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