As of Sunday, North American theaters had already generated about $9.95 billion in ticket sales, with 11 days of 2009 to go, according to Box Office Mojo, which tracks movie sales.
Most important, the industry did not reach this level of success through price increases alone. Box Office Mojo said attendance so far this year was about 1.39 billion, already a 3 percent increase over last year, even before counting many holiday blockbuster releases.
That is still off about 12 percent from 2002, the attendance peak for the decade, but a far better showing than 2008, when attendance dropped 4.5 percent, according to Box Office Mojo’s figures.
“It’s our job as an industry to make movies that consumers feel are worthy of getting out of the house to see, and this year we achieved that,” said Robert G. Friedman, a chairman of Summit Entertainment, the studio behind “The Twilight Saga: New Moon.”
Even so, the film business has more work to do if it truly wants to scale new heights at the box office. Adjusting for inflation, 2002 still holds the contemporary record with just over $11 billion in sales.
The robust box office is helping the industry cope with the DVD downturn. In the first six months of the year, DVD revenue fell by about $1 billion compared with the previous year, analysts say, as consumers tightened their discretionary spending and as video-on-demand and online viewing became more popular.
A major problem is that bigger receipts at the box office do not immediately translate to bigger studio profits because of revenue splitting with theaters and other partners.
Still, the uptick in moviegoing has studios for the first time in years focusing more on delivering must-see films than churning out poorly executed movies and letting DVD sales pick up the slack.
“If people come to the movies and leave feeling like they got more than they paid for, the experience was validated for them and they will come back,” said Tom Rothman, a chairman of Fox Filmed Entertainment.
So, how did Hollywood deliver such strong results?
Start with the recession. Historically speaking, the old saw that movies do well in hard times is not precisely true. But the economy certainly played a role this year, analysts say, with the movies offering a relatively affordable escape.
The downturn also coincided with a batch of movies that did not make people think too hard. Put “The Hangover” from Warner Brothers in that category — the comedy, featuring Mr. Tyson’s tiger, came out of nowhere to sell $277.3 million in domestic tickets — along with inexpensive thrillers like “Taken,” from 20th Century Fox.
Studios relied surprisingly little on men in tights — “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” was the lone superhero picture among the year’s top 10 — but leaned heavily on big-budget sequels and prequels. Seven of the top 10 movies were new franchise installments, including the No. 1 movie of the year, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which Paramount Pictures pushed to $402 million in domestic sales.
Other factors mattered, like a less-cluttered marquee: the number of films released in theaters dropped 14 percent for the year compared with 2008. But by far the biggest contributor was the audience’s embrace of 3-D screenings, for which a ticket costs $3 to $5 more than standard.
Analysts estimate that box office revenue from 3-D has totaled $1.3 billion so far this year — not counting “Avatar,” from James Cameron, which opened on Friday. In 2008, 3-D sales stood at $307 million.
Expect the business to push the format even harder as a result: there are currently more than 50 films slated for 3-D release in coming years, according to RealD, a provider of 3-D technology for theaters.
Imax, the large-format movie company, also kicked into overdrive in 2009, helping to push film after film to blockbuster status. There are now 440 Imax theaters open around the world, a 24 percent increase from the fourth quarter of last year, according to Richard L. Gelfond, Imax’s chief executive.