Business analyst Mark Lacter joins KPCC once a week for an in-depth look at economic issues in Southern California.
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Mixed results for Hollywood at the summer box office

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Now that we have a deal between Time Warner Cable and CBS, we can turn our Hollywood focus back on the movie industry.

Steve Julian: Business analyst Mark Lacter, would you agree it's been an up and down summer at the box office?

Mark Lacter: It's been a flaky summer for Hollywood, Steve.  On the plus side, ticket revenue was up more than 10 percent, and attendance increased around six-and-a-half percent compared with last year (this covers the first week of May through Labor Day weekend).  The problem is that the studios and their investors spent huge amounts of money to make a lot of these movies, and they had to compete in a very crowded market - 23 big-budget films came out this summer, which is way higher than normal, and some of them never had a chance.

Julian: Some examples?

Lacter: Probably the biggest clunker was "The Lone Ranger," which could end up losing close to $200 million for Disney.  Another big disappointment was "White House Down," which was distributed by Sony and brought in only $140 million, which for a big-budget action film is really bad.  Even a film like "Pacific Rim," which did well at the box office, might still end up in the red because the production and marketing costs were so high.

Julian: And summer, of course, is the time when studios want to bring out these monster releases -

Lacter: - right, what they call "tent poles" - and in that category, the biggest winner was Disney's "Iron Man," which took in $1.2 billion.  Also having a great summer was "Monsters University" from Pixar, with $700 million.  You also had "Despicable Me 2" and "Fast and Furious 6," which might not be our cup of tea (speak for yourself, it takes me back to my police car days!), but did very well for Universal.  Eight of the top 12 films this summer were sequels - and yet, sequels were no guarantee of success (a number of them really struggled).  And, some non-blockbuster films found considerable success: "Now You See Me" from Lionsgate only cost $75 million to make.

Julian: So, in some ways, Hollywood was its usual unpredictable self.

Lacter: That's right - and don't expect any big changes in strategy when it comes to big-budget films.  The prospect of having huge success with one of these blockbusters is just too great, but perhaps more important is the fact that many of these films are financed by multiple groups of investors, and so the risk is spread around.  It's not like the old days when a studio bankrolled the whole thing.

Julian: Though, sounds like it's bad news for the city of Los Angeles: the "Man of Steel" sequel is going to be shot in Michigan?

Lacter: Mayor Garcetti has actually declared a state of emergency because the city keeps losing business to other states that offer big tax incentives to films - what's known as runaway production.  The truth is that business has been lost over the years, but L.A. is hardly in any danger of losing its spot as the center of entertainment.  And, you can see that with the L.A. County Board of Supervisors signing off on Disney's plan for a TV and movie production facility near Santa Clarita that will add more than a half-million square feet of studio space.

Julian: And, Universal's expanding, too.

Lacter: Earlier this year, Universal was given the approval to build more production facilities, and Paramount is planning an expansion, as well.  Now, these are all very ambitious projects - not the sort of investments that would be made if these studios were looking elsewhere to make movies and TV shows.  And, of course, they mean jobs - actually, employment levels in the entertainment industry have remained fairly steady going back the last decade.

Julian: Are there states that are pulling back their incentives?

Lacter: Yes, the state of North Carolina, which has been especially aggressive in using tax incentives to draw in movies and television going back to the 80s, is phasing out the giveaways because legislators have decided that the economic benefits aren't worth the tax revenues being lost.  And, other states with tax incentive programs are pulling back as well - they're finding that the payback is very difficult to measure.

Mark Lacter writes for Los Angeles Magazine and pens the business blog at LA