LOS ANGELES, Nov. 19 — Maybe Hollywood tried harder. Or maybe it didn’t try quite so hard.
Whichever the strategy, the movie business climbed its way out of a dismal pattern of declining audience to more solid footing in 2006. With most of the year’s movie receipts counted, the box office is up 6.5 percent over last year, and attendance has risen nearly 5 percent.
This weekend was just the latest litmus test of Hollywood’s overall health. As young men and other gamers lined up to buy Sony’s PlayStation 3, the box-office pulse beat strong. Warner Brothers, despite having one of its roughest years in recent memory, scored with the animated penguin musical, "Happy Feet," which took in an estimated $42.3 million at the domestic box office.
And "Casino Royale," the overhauled James Bond franchise with the pug-faced Daniel Craig in the lead, took in an estimated $40.6 million at the box office for Sony Pictures Entertainment. The movie took in another $42 million in a handful of major markets abroad (including Britain), evidence that the studio’s big-budget bet on a grittier Bond would pay off.
“We’re fantastically happy,” said Jeff Blake, Sony’s vice chairman, noting that the movie would be even more successful overseas than in this country. “This is on track to be the biggest Bond ever worldwide, by far.”
Both of these films, with budgets of $100 million and $140 million respectively qualified as blockbusters in a year peppered with more modestly sized successes, from “Talladega Nights” to "Saw III," to the surprise mockumentary hit "Borat," which has taken in $90.5 million so far and is even finding audiences overseas.
By contrast, this time last year — as attendance was nose-diving by 8 percent — "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" took in an eye-popping $102 million its first weekend.
That still wasn’t enough to reverse a trend of gloom and doom, and the realization that the movies had more competition than ever before from video games, online social networking and television.
“Last year people were looking to ‘King Kong’ and ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ to save the day,” said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, which tallies the box office. There are no such films waiting around the corner in December, he noted, yet Hollywood will still finish the year on solid footing, buoyed by a broader array of films appealing to audiences that look beyond the young males who have been the most avid moviegoers.
Mr. Dergarabedian said, “This year we have to look to this collection of films to do well, and I think that will happen.”
Exhibitor Relations is projecting that the domestic box-office total will surpass $9 billion for the year, which it did not do in 2005. The international box office now adds up to even more than the domestic figure, but an overall figure for the year was not yet available.
To be sure 2006 had its share of blockbuster hits, but many of them did not fit the Hollywood formula of noisy explosions and computer magic.
Along with "Mission: Impossible III," and even Pixar’s "Cars" neither of which performed to expectations, came "The Da Vinci Code" an adult-audience blockbuster that did huge business overseas, along with a respectable box office in the United States, for a total of $755 million. Another film for grown-ups, "The Departed" by the director Martin Scorsese, has taken in $173 million at the box office around the world, though the film did cost $100 million to make.
And "The Devil Wears Prada," starring a majestically mean Meryl Streep and no computer effects, was a surprise moneymaker by aiming for women and teenage girls. The movie cost $35 million to make, and has taken in $289 million worldwide.
“I think what it’s been is really a much better variety of pictures,” Mr. Blake said. “If we haven’t had, particularly in the fourth quarter, a blue chip sequel-blockbuster other than Bond, there certainly has been a lot of variety this year that has really added to the year. It hasn’t been the same audience that’s expected to show up. We’re not just chasing the young males and young females every week.”
Michael Lynton, the chairman of Sony, observed that the studios placed their marketing dollars more carefully this year.
“These days the industry seems to be mixing it up more in the marketing, more innovation vis-à-vis the Internet, better integration of publicity and media, more interesting use of outdoor,” he said. “Whether this has made a difference or not, I’m not sure I can judge.”
Alan Horn, the president of Warner Brothers, acknowledged that his studio’s blockbuster bets did not pay off — "Posiedon" and "Lady In The Water" chief among the failures — while "Superman Returns" did not perform to expectations. But with numerous midsize films opening in December, he said, including “Blood Diamond,” a thriller set in Africa, and a football movie, "We Are Marshall," his studio would still surpass $1 billion at the box office this year.
“I wish we had done better; I’m disappointed we didn’t do better,” he said, while noting that the industry overall improved. “But is the audience there? Do they want to see movies? The box office for the industry would suggest that they’re there as much as they’ve been in prior years.”