Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Box-Office Bonanza or Movie Misery?

By Mike Gillis

The New York Times recently reported the recession isn't hobbling Hollywood. Ticket sales in 2008 reached $1.7 billion, an increase of 17.5 percent. The Times points out that the up tic is not only the result of higher ticket prices, but matched by a comparable jump in attendance.

Social "experts" suggest the reason is simple: In tough times, people like to hunker down in dark places and forget their troubles.

That may be true, if a little too simplistic, but I'm sure people are looking for less expensive entertainment these days. A trip to the movies, sans the concession stand, is still cheaper than a night on the town, a sporting event or a live show. It may not be as cheap as a DVD rental or TV, but it's still a better way to get out and enjoy some company and a movie.

Still, those numbers don't really reflect a sea change in what people are choosing to watch. Although some smaller venues and art houses are reporting increases as well, most of the money is being shelled out for familiar fare. Superhero movies are doing well. Comedies seem bullet-proof: Consider the success of "Tyler Perry's Madea Goes to Jail" or the inexplicably flush-with-cash "Paul Blart: Mall Cop."

Perhaps the best example of people continuing to turn to the tried-and-true staples of the multiplex is the mystifying success of "Friday the 13th," which opened at nearly $50 million in its first week, making it the highest-grossing opening weekend for a horror film. Forget that the latest incarnation of that hoary series is a remake of the original 1980 picture that spawned more than a dozen sequels.

One of the first films I saw in the theater was the original "Friday the 13th." (I won't talk about how a 12-year-old boy was able to effortlessly file into the theater to see an R-rated movie rife with sex and violence). I will say this about the experience: Remembering how the packed theater as it shook from the scares, actually rumbled during the final jump, made me appreciate the power of cinema. It reminded me of why I wanted to make movies. I later graduated from "Friday the 13th" and recognized there were a host of reasons why I wanted to make movies, but I never forgot about the visceral power of cinema because of those early experiences with bad movies.

I've never liked to dwell on the box office. Over the last two decades, box office receipts have dominated discussions about movies. People are often more likely to decide to see a film based on its box-office take or anticipated box-office success. So, if we're here talking about the box office, and how attendance is up, I hope there's a chance that these new and larger audiences will search for more, beyond the borders of the multiplex, and help keep movies diverse and entertaining.