'Marley & Me' and a big Christmas audience

"Marley & Me," the tale of a boisterous dog, led a strong pack of movies at the box office over the weekend, but together, they still couldn't pull this year's movie attendance out of the doghouse.

"Marley" made the most money ever for a Christmas Day premiere with $14.7 million in ticket sales, adding $37 million more over the weekend. The next three highest-grossing films each took in more than $20 million for the weekend.

Even so, the year was nothing to cheer about. Attendance for the year fell 5% from last year despite the popularity of such blockbusters as "The Dark Knight" and "Iron Man." Revenue didn't fall much, mainly because average ticket prices increased 4.7%, according to data tracker Media by Numbers.

That doesn't mean that this year should be remembered as a bad year for Hollywood, which started the year with the writers strike.

"It was an amazing year with a lot of movies that made a huge impression," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers. "But it's been an up-and-down year."

Films such as "Revolutionary Road" and "Frost/Nixon," for example, might be popular with critics, but in limited release they can't compete with such powerhouses last year as "Spider-Man 3" and "Shrek the Third."

Total box-office revenue through Sunday was $9.5 billion, down slightly from last year's $9.6 billion, but the average ticket price this year rose to $7.20 from $6.88 last year.

This December helped put the skids on attendance, as moviegoers faced one of the nation's worst recessions. Through the seven days that ended Christmas Day, ticket sales amounted to $200 million, Dergarabedian said, compared with $350 million for the same week last year, when box-office smashes such as "I Am Legend," "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "National Treasure: Book of Secrets" were filling theaters. Box-office sales for the second two weekends in December were down more than 40% from the year before.

"We took a major hit to the box-office solar plexus over the previous two weekends," Dergarabedian said.

Over the four-day weekend that included Christmas Day, the numbers looked a little better as each of the top four films took in $30 million or more.

"When Christmas is on a Thursday, you have a big audience available and the ability to play for a long time," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures, which distributed "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." The film made $39 million over the four-day weekend and $27 million excluding Christmas, making it No. 2 over four days but third-highest over three.

"Marley," aimed at all ages, attracted families who wanted to see a feel-good movie during the holidays, said Bert Livingston, general sales manager at 20th Century Fox, which distributed the movie. For the four-day weekend, ticket sales totaled $51.7 million.

"The movie's about life and love and family, and that's what people want right now," he said.

Disney's "Bedtime Stories," a children's movie starring Adam Sandler, made $28.1 million over three days and $38.6 million over four days -- second highest over the weekend, third over four days.

Even "Valkyrie," MGM's much-derided Tom Cruise film about a plot to kill Adolf Hitler, exceeded expectations by taking in $21.5 million over three days and $30 million over the four-day weekend.

"We were vindicated at the box office," said Erik Lomis, head of worldwide distribution at MGM. "The public speaks louder than anyone else."

"The Spirit," a dark comic-book tale that also premiered on Christmas Day, made $10.4 million in its first four days, which includes its $6.5 million in weekend grosses. The Lionsgate movie, ninth in box-office sales, was widely panned by critics.

Some of the year's most-buzzed-about movies were released in a small number of theaters, which helped generate word of mouth but didn't contribute much to the studios' coffers.

Films such as "Gran Torino" from Warner Bros., "Revolutionary Road" from Paramount Vantage, "Doubt" and "Frost/Nixon" are doing well in limited release and will probably continue to earn money into the new year, Media by Numbers' Dergarabedian said.

"Revolutionary Road," which played in only three theaters, made about $64,000 per theater, for example, setting a record for 2008 for the biggest opening per theater. The previous record holder was Universal's "Frost/Nixon," which made $60,049 per theater in its first weekend.

"Doubt," which stars Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in an adaptation of a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by the same name, came in 10th at the box office this weekend. The Miramax film grossed $7 million over four days and $5.7 million over the weekend, but was in roughly half as many theaters as many of the films that earned more money.

"Hollywood has been delivering some great product," Dergarabedian said. "They just aren't the types of movies that are going to contribute hundreds of millions to the bottom line."

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