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Hollywood's box-office year: Good news, but for whom?

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The Oscars are over but Hollywood’s Ongoing Festival of Self-Congratulation continued with violent self back-patting today as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) announced that, officially, honestly, and goodnessly, 2006’s box office was up 5.5 percent over that dismal 2005. (As if there was anywhere to go but up, after the worst year, money-wise, in two decades. But I digress.)

The news was met with huzzahs from all over town. The Los Angeles Times reported on a survey that said that 63 percent of movie fans prefer to watch films in theaters rather than staying home — findings that were hailed as positive, even though they represented a decline from a year ago, when 69 percent said they chose the multiplex. Variety, meanwhile, argued that the numbers proved that the media got carried away when they claimed that the business of Hollywood was doomed, a fairly constant refrain since the super slump of 2005. For its part, The Hollywood Reporter cited the fact that revenues were “on a tear” internationally, up a huge 11 percent.

It’s all good news for the studios, sure, but is it good news for us, the moviegoers? Good question — glad you asked! The fact is, buried inside all of these upbeat articles were a few troubling stats: production and marketing costs increased to an average of $100.3 million per picture; ticket prices rose to an average of $6.55; and neither grosses nor ticket sales approached previous highs set in 2004 and 2002, respectively. Yes, friends: The business is still struggling. And we’re the ones who stand to pay — figuratively and literally. After all, with costs going up for movie production and things like converting theaters to digital projection, the money has to come from somewhere. Like out of our pockets, at the ticket booth and the concession stand. And those increases in expenditures may just mean that this traditionally risk-averse business will get risk-averser than ever, greenlighting nothing but worn-out franchise pictures and mega-budget action spectacles.

Are you prepared to pay $20 for a ticket to see Die Hard 12, while eating a $10 popcorn? Or is there a silver lining in the MPAA’s numbers?