By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS � Just nine days into his job as the new head of the Motion Picture Association of America, former senator Chris Dodd says he's already feeling overwhelmed by the issues facing American moviegoing.
"It's a little like standing under a waterfall," says Dodd, who served in the Senate for 30 years. "All of this information is flowing over me."
Dodd spoke Tuesday to the 6,000 attendees of CinemaCon, the nation's largest gathering of theater owners and managers. He tackled a number of pressing problems for exhibitors, including piracy and the future of 3-D films.
But nothing was more urgent than getting people back into theaters.
A box-office slide saw 2010 mark the second-lowest attendance in more than a decade, but Dodd says he believes that the dip is cyclical and that Hollywood will rebound when studios release more compelling movies. "It's a content issue as much as anything," Dodd says.
"There has been an ebb and flow" at the box office recently, he says. "But business has been fairly consistent over the years."
But what Dodd and the National Association of Theatre Owners call consistent, some analysts call flat-lining.
According to theater association statistics released Tuesday, ticket sales reached $10.57 billion last year, only the second time ticket sales have eclipsed $10 billion. But that boost comes from rising ticket prices, spiked in part by premium 3-D tickets, which can run close to $20. Theaters sold 1.34 billion tickets in 2010, the second-lowest figure in the past 15 years.
But NATO head John Fithian says that over the long haul, the movie industry remains robust.
"We've had a few bad months," Fithian says. "But we had a similar decline around 2005. Then, in 2006, we had some good movies. Then some more good movies in 2007. And the box office came storming back. I'll say the same thing I said back then: Check with me in July and ask how the movies are doing."
Both Dodd and Fithian downplayed the lure of 3-D. The multimillion-dollar makeover required to make a theater compatible with digital and 3-D movies has been a divisive debate for theater owners, many of whom are struggling in the recession.
"The technology is amazing, but a movie is still going to come down to story," Dodd says.
Fithian was more blunt in dismissing 3-D as a cinematic savior. "It's a tool," he says. "3-D isn't going to make a crappy movie good, but it can make a good movie great."
The surge of video games and online entertainment presents a greater challenge than a cyclical dip, says Jeff Bock of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations.
"Audiences are a lot more discerning now, and they won't just turn out for special effects or 3-D," he says. "Hollywood has to convince people there's a reason to come to the movies this summer."