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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The lucrative summer moviegoing season in North America ended on a lackluster note on Monday as ticket sales limped to a new record while attendance slumped to a three-year low.
The U.S. Labor Day holiday weekend, which marks the traditional end of summer, was led for a third round by "Tropic Thunder." Ben Stiller's Hollywood satire earned an estimated $14.3 million during the four-day period. It marks the lowest tally for a Labor Day holiday chart-topper since 2004, when the martial-arts film "Hero" opened to $11.5 million.
The DreamWorks/Paramount comedy, which Stiller directed and stars in alongside Robert Downey, Jr., has earned about $86.6 million to date. Four new entries were largely ignored, with 20th Century Fox's Vin Diesel sci-fi picture "Babylon A.D." coming in at No. 2 with just $12 million.
The overall picture for summer was not particularly shiny, with a 4 percent rise in the average U.S. ticket price to $7.16 saving the day for the movie industry.
Estimated sales inched up 0.43 percent from last year's record to $4.2 billion, while the number of tickets sold slid 3.5 percent to 586.9 million, according to tracking firm Media By Numbers. The previous low for attendance was in 2005, when 563 million tickets were sold.
All this despite the massive success of "The Dark Knight," which has grossed almost $505 million to date across the United States and Canada. Warner Bros. Pictures' Batman sequel ranks as the second-biggest movie in history behind "Titanic" (before adjusting for inflation).
The 18-week summer span generally accounts for about 40 percent of annual ticket sales, and studios take advantage of school holidays to churn out big-budget sequels and superhero sagas aimed at Hollywood's sweet spot of male youngsters.
While the summer got off to a good start with the Paramount Pictures-distributed pair of "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull," which both earned more than $300 million, overall sales have now fallen for six weekends in a row.
The Olympics and recessionary fears, not to mention such distractions as Hurricane Gustav and the political conventions, have hurt business, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers.
"People are becoming a bit more selective," he said. No one would dare miss the big-buzz movies, but they may be inclined to wait for lesser releases to come out on DVD, he added.
Year-to-date data present a bleaker picture. Ticket sales are off almost 1 percent to $6.6 billion, and attendance is down 4.7 percent, said Media By Numbers.
Among the summer duds were Warner Bros.' $120 million family adventure "Speed Racer" and virtually everything released by Fox, including "Space Chimps," "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" and the Eddie Murphy comedy "Meet Dave."
An official at the News Corp unit said its summer was "very disappointing," but added that all studios go through rough patches.
The Labor Day holiday also presages a relatively quiet few months during which the studios dump unpromising product so that they can then shift their focus to prestige pictures they hope will generate awards-season buzz.
They got an early start on the first part of the strategy with "Babylon A.D.," Overture Films' Don Cheadle thriller "Traitor" (No. 5, $10 million), and a pair of comedies: Lionsgate's "Disaster Movie" (No. 7, $6.9 million) and MGM/Weinstein Co's "College" (No. 15, $2.6 million).
Additionally, Focus Features' costly Sundance Film Festival acquisition "Hamlet 2" opened nationally, a weekend after debuting in two theaters. The Steve Coogan comedy earned $2.1 million, taking its total to $3.1 million. The General Electric Co unit reportedly paid $10 million for rights to the film, just shy of the Sundance record of $10.5 million paid in 2006 for "Little Miss Sunshine" by News Corp's Fox Searchlight.
Paramount and DreamWorks are units of Viacom Inc. Warner Bros. is a unit of Time Warner Inc. Lionsgate is a unit of Lions Gate Entertainment Corp. Overture Films is a unit of Liberty Media Corp's Starz Media. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. and the Weinstein Co. are privately held.
Editing by Mohammad Zargham