The Great Escape: Movies
When economic times get tough, ticket sales surge
By Devin Banerjee
San Jose Mercury News
July 16, 2009 -- Since the silent film era, a certain trend has held true: In tough financial times, people go to the movies.
That trend is now being seen during the worst recession since the Great Depression. Movie theaters in the South Bay and throughout the nation are packing them in, reporting sizable increases in ticket sales and overall attendance. Just this week, for instance, the latest Harry Potter movie had the biggest midnight opening ever.
"When people give up other entertainment options because they're too expensive, they go to the movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "During the Great Depression, moviegoing was huge. People need that inexpensive escapism, and movies provide it."
Indeed, attendance at the theaters this year has seen a surge of more than 60 million -- an 8.7 percent increase from the first half of 2008, according to statistics put out by Hollywood.com. Combined with a nominal increase in ticket prices due to inflation, this new wave of moviegoers has shelled out about $5.7 billion this year -- an 11.2 percent leap from the same period last year.
"It's a good way to spend the evening without paying too much," said Eric Aguilar, 18, who was on his way to see "Bruno" with his girlfriend at Camera 12 in downtown San Jose. Aguilar said they sometimes go to an expensive restaurant but on this day ate at home and came for the movie, which was cheaper.
The trend received a boost with the release of "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," the latest addition to the magical box office franchise based on the literary series by J.K. Rowling.
Grossing $22.2 million domestically in midnight openings alone -- and surpassing the $18 million midnight record held by last year's "The Dark Knight" -- the new Potter flick adds to a $4.48 billion franchise. With two more films to go, it is all but certain to blow past the 22 James Bond films, which began with "Dr. No" in 1962 and since have raked in $5 billion, as the highest-grossing franchise in history.
"Seeing movies isn't a burden because it's great entertainment for not much money at all," said Lisa Nguyen, a single mom and software engineer from San Jose who was taking her daughter to see "Ice Age."
"It keeps my daughter and my wallet happy at the same time."
Attendance at movies follows a cyclical pattern, just as the economy as a whole. Since 1994, for example, eight years have seen declines in moviegoers and eight have experienced increases.
"When you talk about trends in the (entertainment) business -- where nobody really knows anything -- it's very much like a pendulum," said film producer Barbara Boyle, co-founder of Sovereign Pictures and chair of the Department of Film, Television and Digital Media at UCLA. "Right now, that pendulum is swinging to movies."
Boyle attributed the swing to a number of factors, including relatively low ticket prices and posh theaters, but also emphasized the attractiveness of this year's diversity in film genres. For instance, audiences are connecting more with comedies, Dergarabedian noted, because they can offer laughs amid a somewhat somber reality of recession and war.
"During the Depression, nobody wanted to see a movie about people in a bread line; they wanted screwball comedies and lavish films," he said. "This year, 'The Hangover' is doing exceptionally well because of that ... escape it offers."
Lighthearted diversity also came in the form of Pixar's latest animated release, "Up," which currently leads the year's top releases with a quarter-billion dollars in gross revenue.
Due largely to inflation, the average price of a movie ticket has increased 17 cents to $7.35 this year, according to Hollywood.com statistics. Relatively low ticket prices are also helping to keep specialty film production afloat, said Graham Leggat, executive director of the San Francisco Film Society, which supports independent and documentary filmmakers.
"We have a variety of revenue sources -- tuition for classes, membership fees, individual giving, corporate sponsorships, government money, foundation grants, ticket revenue, advertising -- which is partly why we're weathering this economy so well," Leggat said. "While some lines are down, like corporate sponsorship, others are up, like ticket sales."
Boyle predicted that movies will continue to perform well this year but warned that the effects of the recent writer guild's strike; the collapse of capital markets, which will reduce investment in film production and distribution; and the potential of a Screen Actors Guild strike may be felt in a few years.
"The problem is going to be 2011 when we really see the results," she predicted. "It's not a value judgment, but I think 2011 and 2012 are going to see a real hit in the production put out there."
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