International box-office revenues rose 5.1% in 2008 to $16.1bn in contrast to a flat US domestic performance. But the international picture is more mixed than it first appears. The fourth quarter of last year saw an international box office decline of 2.3% with only the first quarter of the year showing a sizeable revenue increase, around a 30% rise.
Otherwise ticket sales were generally flat and in many major territories, including South Korea, Italy and Spain, annual grosses were significantly diminished.
The spluttering international surge which has generally provided double-digit growth annually in the preceding five years could be at an end. Emerging areas in South America, China and Russia are rapidly evolving into mature marketplaces.
Indeed, 2008 also marks the first time during the current decade that total international admissions have declined on a year-to-year basis.
However, of greatest concern is the rapidly strengthening value of the US dollar. At the outset of the year most currencies were at peak levels in relationship to the US dollar, but as the global financial recession took hold in the final quarter, the balance shifted radically.
For the US majors the toll rippled through the industry with virtually every studio trimming production slates as well as their personnel rosters. It is also evident that above-the-line costs and talent participation deals have been reined in to stave off ballooning budgets. Even advertising costs appear to be receiving a trim. The belt-tightening will see fewer films released in 2009 and fewer still into 2010.
While pundits have been using last year's data to claim the old industry is recession-proof, the more daunting challenge for analysts is to assess whether the medium is holding its own against new, more mobile media.
The film-going experience ultimately weathered the storm created by the arrival of television in the 1950s and 1960s and home video in the 1980s. In each instance there was an industry retrenchment that included a shift towards more event releases on the high end, balanced with economically produced genre fare.
How national and international film industries will react as the obvious erosion created by handhelds and other digitally accessible formats become more visible is difficult to predict. It is hard to predict the next step in an already highly risk-averse creative environment.
There is, nonetheless, a potentially bright scenario in a future of restraint. Fewer pictures could well translate into higher individual returns for movies. Among film-goers who see at least a film a month at a movie theatre, there appears to be no correlation between frequency of movie-going and the number of choices.
In a marketplace that has 15%-20% fewer options, there would theoretically be a better cost-to-return ratio if admissions continue to decline at the current rate of 5%.