Misery loves company at the movies

[4 May 2009]

By Russ Britt

MarketWatch (MCT)

LOS ANGELES - Car companies are going bankrupt, banks are teetering on the brink of disaster, jobs are scarce - and Hollywood couldn’t be happier.

Well, maybe the film industry isn’t exactly overjoyed that the nation’s economy is struggling, but difficult times have given moviemakers a chance to pad their box-office take in 2009. This year, Hollywood is proving the old adage that when the going gets tough, the tough go to the movies - along with everyone else.

Film revenue is up 17 percent so far this year and ticket sales have jumped 15 percent, data show. It looks as if movie makers are headed for another big summer, if the misery index offers any proof, says Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com.

“If the first 17 weeks of the year are any indication, we’ll have a massive summer,” Dergarabedian says. “We have been breaking records left and right since the beginning of the year.”

With the summer movie season - filmdom’s equivalent of Christmas for retailers - having had its traditional kickoff Friday, attendance should hold its own against last year’s record season.

Though some films may have trouble matching some of the more incredible box-office successes of 2008 - such as the $1 billion worldwide take of “The Dark Knight” - sales overall could surpass those of last year, says Gitesh Pandya, editor of BoxOfficeGuru.com

“Overall, I think we’ve got enough ammunition to match last summer,” Pandya said.

As with every summer, this year will be loaded with sequels, though the term is getting harder to define. The film industry’s summer goes from the first weekend in May to Labor Day weekend.

The season is front-loaded with big May releases, including last weekend’s debut of an “X-Men” sequel/prequel “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” from News Corp.‘s Twentieth-Century Fox unit. (News Corp. also is parent of MarketWatch, the publisher of this report.) According to the Associated Press, it grabbed the No. 1 spot at the box office with an estimated $87 million opening.

Like recent films in the “Batman” and “Superman” series, “X-Men” goes back in time to explain how the razor-fingered character played by this year’s Oscar host, Hugh Jackman, came into being.

The same sort of film-franchise time traveling takes place next weekend when Viacom Inc.‘s Paramount unit releases what the industry is calling a “reboot” of the “Star Trek” franchise. The film doesn’t feature any of the actors from the old television series or the new ones, though Leonard Nimoy is listed in the credits in a small part.

Instead, the $150 million film is designed, much as 2005’s “Batman Begins,” to chronicle the early days of Capt. James T. Kirk and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise.

Director Ron Howard refuses to call his May 15 release of “Angels and Demons” a sequel, but Tom Hanks reprises his “Da Vinci Code” role as symbologist Robert Langdon in the Sony Corp. film. And the Catholic Church plays a prominent role.

Yet two films likely to pass the sequel smell test with flying colors will debut just before Memorial Day: Fox’s “Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian” and “Terminator Salvation,” from Time Warner Inc.‘s Warner Bros. unit.

For roughly a month after that, the schedule is pretty much sequel-free as “Up” from Walt Disney Co. and its Pixar unit comes out May 29. After that, a number of comedies will dominate the month of June.

Three debut on the same day, June 5. They include Warner’s “The Hangover,” Fox Searchlight’s “My Life in Ruins” and an adventure comedy from General Electric’s Universal Pictures unit, “Land of the Lost,” starring Will Ferrell.

Toward the end of the month, Paramount will put out the sequel to its hugely successful 2007 release, “Transformers.” This film, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” will make an unusual Wednesday debut on June 24.

One more notable original feature hits screens in early July. Johnny Depp will star as John Dillinger in “Public Enemies,” which debuts on July 1 in time for the Independence Day holiday. The film is directed by Michael Mann.

That same day, another sequel hits screens in July: Fox’s “Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs.” It’s the third installment in that animated series.

Later in the month comes “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” from Warner. The latter is the sixth installment in the “Potter” franchise, and was delayed from its planned debut in November last year.

Warner is hoping lightning strikes twice in the same place by moving the “Potter” release. It now occupies the same weekend that “Dark Knight” took last year on its way to a record debut of $158 million.

This year’s summer season could set a record not only for the period but help bring about the first-ever $10 billion year in domestic receipts, Dergarabedian said.

The industry set a record in summer grosses last year at $4.2 billion on its way to $9.6 billion for all of 2008. The full-year total was down marginally from 2007.

A record 45 films are making “wide” debuts in more than 2,000 theaters, up from 40 last year and 37 in 2007.

While measuring public tastes always has been dicey for filmmakers whenever the industry makes a big push, the recession is expected to figure prominently in the overall totals. Consumers likely will limit vacation spending as the economy continues to be uncertain.

“The general public is looking for ways to get their entertainment without breaking the bank,” Dergarabedian said.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/92635-misery-loves-company-at-the-movies/