PORTLAND, Ore. ( TheStreet) -- Welcome to summer blockbuster season, movie fans. Sit back and enjoy the gouging.
Listen, there's no question this is a lucrative time of year for movie studios, and getting more lucrative with each warm-weather slate of blockbusters. Back in summer of 2002, when Sony's original recipe Tobey Maguire Spider-Man raked in nearly $404 million at U.S. box offices, the movie industry as a whole squeezed summer patrons for nearly $3.6 billion, according to BoxOfficeMojo. A decade later, with Disney's (DIS) The Avengers at the top of the heap with $623 million in box office receipts last year, the summer movie industry swelled to a $4.3 billion affair.
Yet, in the bigger picture, those numbers are strictly OK. In 2002, 3-D and IMAX (IMAX) weren't squeezing every potential dollar out of movie audiences. In fact, the industry only produced 157 movies in summer 2002 compared with the 221 it released last summer alone. The blockbusters and more benign arthouse releases of summer 2002 averaged $22.9 million apiece, compared with the relatively scant $19.5 million a pop brought in by the films of summer 2012.
The sad truth that gigaplex owners have been dealing with for some time is that fewer people are going to see their movies overall. In 2002, the movie industry sold 1.576 billion tickets with Spider-Man leading the way. By last year, even The Avengers and Batman couldn't make Americans buy more than 1.36 billion tickets. That's up from the 1.28 billion sold in 2011, but still part of a steady decline.So what's wrong? Is it really just high definition, Blu-ray and $8-a-month streaming sucking away customers? A little. In the past decade, the average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. rose to $7.96 from $5.81. That's average; folks plunking down $20 for 3-D showings or $14 just to get in the door of big-city multiplexes know it's far worse. That high price of entry is also shrinking moviegoers' options. As the movie industry forces a switch to all-digital format from film, small theaters are forced to either make costly upgrades just to keep up or bow out altogether. As a result, the 5,712 theaters that existed in the U.S. in 2002 have dwindled to roughly 5,300 even as the number of screens expanded from 35,000 to nearly 39,000, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. Regal (RGC - Get Report), AMC, Carmike (CKEC - Get Report) and Cinemark (CNK - Get Report) face their own struggles, but still fare better than their smaller competitors. Still, those smaller competitors are out there and still giving moviegoers a viable and, in some cases, cheaper alternative to the multiplex. Here are just five other options for summer movie audiences this season: