Len Klady analyses the US box office results this summer, with revenues down but niche films doing well.

Summer — the busiest film going season in the US — took it on the chin as revenues closed Monday with a $4.05 billion tally. The total was a 3% box-office decline from the prior year and with admissions expected to be at least 10% down from 2009, the lowest attended summer season of the past decade.

Fueled by premium-priced event pictures in 3D and/or large format, the higher ticket costs appeared to cut into the frequency both avid and casual moviegoers attended the cinema. Historically, blockbuster successes have fueled increased attendance; particularly among people that consider themselves casual film attendees. However, several studio sources point to an economy still struggling to recover as an impediment to growing the audience and in the current climate, having to pay significantly more to see a movie has had a significant impact on mainstream mid-budget productions.

Five of the season’s top 10 grossing pictures were available in 3D including the top summer title Toy Story 3 that has a current box office of $408.1 billion. Additionally both Iron Man 2 and Inception were presented in large format. The biggest film in a conventional format was The Twilight Saga: Eclipse.

Sony was the top distributor in terms of market share with 16.5% of the total pie, based upon a collective gross of $669.2 million. The company clinched the crown in the final weekend of summer passing Paramount which had led since the release of Iron Man 2 in May when the season began.

Despite the fact that such anticipated commercial behemoths as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, Knight and Day and Sex and the City 2 were domestic disappointments, others such as Inception, Despicable Me and Grown Ups far exceeded box-office expectations.

However, the major surprise of summer was not a single title but rather the vitality of independent and alternative movies. Both Summit with the third Twilight and Lionsgate with the unexpectedly potent The Expendables emerged as contenders in a season where non-majors are loathe to go up against the stranglehold studios have had on the country’s prime screen venues.

But it was the breadth and depth of niche films that provided the brightest light of the season. Such diverse movies as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sundance award winners The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone and the arty I Am Love rang up significant revenues and managed to both hold screens and secure crossover playdates when high profile titles faltered. A record 13 alternative movies managed to gross in excess of $4 million each indicating that many of these titles were playing not simply to their base of older filmgoers.

The domestic box office for 2010 through Sept 6 had generated $7.75 billion that rates it 3% better than last year’s pace. It also represents an overall downturn in ticket sales of 5% with the hope of a late year surge that could close the gap.