Overall ticket sales climbed 6 percent to $34.7 billion, fueled mainly by growth in international box-office revenue, according to a report by the Motion Picture Association of America, the chief lobbying arm for the major studios.
International ticket sales reached $23.9 billion, up 6 percent compared with 2011 and 32 percent over five years ago, driven by growth in Russia, Brazil and China, which last year surpassed Japan as the world's largest international box-office market for movies, the MPAA said in its annual survey of the industry.
Last year also marked the first that digital screens surpassed analog screens worldwide. More than two-thirds of the world's nearly 130,000 cinema screens are now digital.
"Great storytelling, memorable characters and an ever-innovating theater experience brought more people around the world to the movie theater in 2012 than ever before," said Christopher J. Dodd, chairman and chief executive of the MPAA. "It's a powerful reminder of just how much movies matter - not just to our culture, but also to our economy."
Major studios have enjoyed strong business in overseas markets such as China, which had $2.7 billion in movie ticket sales last year, up 36 percent from the prior year, while Japan had $2.4 billion in ticket sales. Britain, the third-largest international market, sold $1.7 billion in tickets.
China has been experiencing a multiplex-building boom as Hollywood studios and production companies sign deals to expand their presence in the world's most populous country, which last year took steps to ease its annual quota on the number of foreign movies it allows into the country.
Domestic ticket sales also were strong last year. In the U.S. and Canada, 2012 box office revenue was $10.8 billion, up 6 percent from 2011 and 12 percent from five years ago, as theaters profited from such hits as "The Avengers" and "The Dark Knight Rises."
The increase was driven largely by an increase in admissions to 2-D films. Revenue from higher-priced 3-D films was flat, and average ticket prices remained virtually unchanged.
Theaters sold 1.36 billion tickets in 2012, up 6 percent from 2011 and reversing two years of declines. Nonetheless, admissions were down from 1.52 billion in 2003, underscoring the long-term challenges exhibitors face to grow their business as consumers get more entertainment options in the home.
"The cinema industry serves an increasingly diverse audience, by age, gender and ethnicity," said John Fithian, president and CEO of the National Association of Theatre Owners. "The record box office, here and abroad, shows that when we meet that diversity with a broad range of movies and amenities, cutting-edge technologies and viewing options, our industry thrives."
More than two-thirds of the U.S.-Canada population - 225 million people - went to the movies at least once in 2012, consistent with previous years. Cinema ticket sales continue to be driven by frequent moviegoers - those who go to the movies once a month or more. Frequent moviegoers represent 13 percent of the population, but they purchased 57 percent of all tickets sold in 2012.
Latinos had the highest annual attendance per capita, going to the movies on average 6.4 times a year, compared with nearly four times per year for others.
In the U.S. and Canada, 3-D box office was comparable to 2011 levels at $1.8 billion, despite fewer 3-D film releases.
For 2013, box-office sales have slowed considerably. Ticket sales are down 12 percent, a result of several misfires, including Warner Bros.' "Jack the Giant Slayer."
In a call with reporters, Fithian attributed the downturn to a dearth of family movies, but he predicted that box-office revenue would pick up later this year. "The diversity of the movie slate was just not there in the first quarter," he said. "We're pretty confident about the remainder of 2013."
Fithian acknowledged that demographic trends in the industry are both good and bad.
In a concerning pattern for exhibitors and studios, younger audiences aren't visiting the multiplex as often as they once did. Average attendance among teens remained flat - they visited an average of 6.2 times a year - compared to 2011 and was down from 7.9 times a year in 2009. Per capita attendance among 25- to 39-year-olds, however, increased from 4.3 to 5 visits a year between 2009 and 2012.
"We would like to have all people go to the movies more often and not just frequent moviegoers," Fithian said. "That is one of our challenges. How do how we reach more people?"