By Piya Sinha-Roy
(Reuters) - Ticket sales at U.S. and Canadian theaters suffered a 4 percent slump in 2011 to $10.2 billion despite a slew of big studio-funded hits that helped boost the global box office, a Hollywood industry group said on Thursday.
The U.S. and Canada film box office fell from 2010's $10.6 billion in revenue, according to the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents major U.S. film studios.
U.S. and Canadian theaters sold 1.3 billion tickets in 2011, its lowest level in a decade and its second consecutive year of declines, a troubling statistic for both the theaters and Hollywood studios, which have traditionally relied on theatrical showings to promote their movies for later sales on DVDs and through digital outlets.
John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, called the slump "disappointing to our U.S. operators."
Despite a year in which studios released big-budget crowd pleasers such as "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," Fithian said "a few more good movies" were needed for the box office to recover in the aftermath of 2010's first-quarter box office hits "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland."
Offsetting the dour domestic numbers, the global box office increased by 3 percent from 2010, raking in $32.6 billion during 2011, strengthened by ongoing growth of theaters in international markets.
China's box office alone grew by 35 percent in 2011, as the nation stepped up construction of 3D and large-screen Imax theaters.
Last year's five top-earning films in the U.S. and Canadian market was led by the final installment in the "Harry Potter" franchise, followed by "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1," "The Hangover 2" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides," with box office revenues ranging from $241 million to $381 million each.
Sales of movie tickets for 3D films fell by $400 million in 2011 from $2.2 billion in 2010, which was spurred by the success of "Avatar."
Frequent theater-goers, who represent only 10 percent of the U.S. and Canadian population but purchased half of all cinema tickets in 2011, were led by the 25-39 age demographic compared to the 18-24 demographic leading 2010.
The foreign box office's $22.4 billion market was led by Japan with $2.3 billion in sales, ahead of China and France with $2 billion each.
Currently, China is building eight cinema screens a day and has plans for 175 Imax theaters this year, said former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd, chairman and CEO of the MPAA.
Fithian said global box office growth was the result of three factors -- greater access in important places like China, building modern cinemas in emerging markets, and a diverse mix of films overseas.
"When you have more diverse movies to offer, combined with good cinemas, you continue to drive growth," he said.
Despite the slow domestic year in 2011, Dodd said his MPAA members were excited for 2012, buoyed by an almost 15 percent increase in the 2012 box office so far, compared to last year.
"We're looking forward to a tremendous year, if the first couple of months are any indication, we're ahead," said Dodd.
The MPAA chairman saw "The Hunger Games" as a potential box office leader for a summer of big hits that includes "The Avengers" and the next installment of the "Batman" franchise, "The Dark Knight Rises."
"The Hunger Games" has already sold out 2,500 show times ahead of its release on Friday, and is currently selling 10 tickets a second on ticket sales website Fandango, the site's spokesman said on Thursday.
Dodd added that distributors were adding "more screenings by the minute" on Thursday, with more than 4,600 complexes and 10,000 screens showing the film in its opening week.
(This story has been corrected to reflect that the "lowest level in a decade" refers to the 1.3 billion tickets sold in 2011, not to the $10.2 billion in ticket sales that year.)
(Editing by Phil Berlowitz)