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Hollywood reclaims crowd and cash

Los Angeles, Nov. 20: Maybe Hollywood tried harder. Or maybe it didn’t try quite so hard.

Whichever the strategy, the movie business climbed its way out of a dismal pattern of declining audience to more solid footing in 2006. With most of the year’s movie receipts counted, the box office is up 6.5 per cent over last year, and attendance has risen nearly 5 per cent.

This weekend was just the latest litmus test of Hollywood’s overall health. As young men and other gamers lined up to buy Sony’s PlayStation 3, the box-office pulse beat strong. Warner Brothers, despite having one of its roughest years in recent memory, scored with the animated penguin musical, Happy Feet, which took in an estimated $42.3 million at the domestic box office.

And Casino Royale, the overhauled James Bond franchise with the pug-faced Daniel Craig in the lead, took in an estimated $40.6 million at the box office for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The movie took in another $42 million in a handful of major markets abroad, evidence that the studio’s big-budget bet on a grittier Bond would pay off.

“We’re fantastically happy,” said Jeff Blake, Sony’s vice-chairman. “This is on track to be the biggest Bond ever worldwide, by far.”

Both of these films, with budgets of $100 million and $140 million respectively, qualified as blockbusters in a year peppered with more modestly sized successes, from Talladega Nights to Saw III and Borat, which has taken in $90.5 million so far.

By contrast, this time last year — as attendance was nose-diving by 8 per cent — Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire took in an eye-popping $102 million its first weekend.

That still wasn’t enough to reverse a trend of gloom and doom, and the realisation that the movies had more competition than ever before from video games, online social networking and television.

“Last year people were looking to King Kong and Chronicles of Narnia to save the day,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tallies the box office. There are no such films waiting around the corner in December, he noted, yet Hollywood will still finish the year on solid footing, buoyed by a broader array of films that look beyond the young males who have been the most avid moviegoers.

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