In the dark

July 02, 2002

FEWER AMERICANS are watching network TV shows. CD sales and video rentals are falling. Consumer spending on books and magazines isn't growing. But more and more the last 18 months, folks have been flocking to the movies.

Hollywood last year enjoyed its best year since 1959, with movie admissions up 5 percent to 1.5 billion filmgoers. Box-office receipts soared by more than 8 percent. And for the first six months of this year, that trend has only accelerated - with ticket sales leaping by about 20 percent over the same period last year.

A similar burst in movies' popularity took place during the first years of World War II, with attendance rising by about 40 percent - a parallel prompting speculation that, in tense times, Americans seek escape in the communal experience of gathering in a cool, dark place to be engulfed by light and sound.

The movie industry likes to think of itself as something like the nation's campfire. Gloating over failed predictions that theaters would be empty in the wake of Sept. 11, the industry's chief spokesman, Jack Valenti, boasted this spring: "Americans, even in a time that tries their souls, will be not cabined or confined in their homes. Going to the movies is the American remedy for the anxieties of daily life."

This theory - elaborate storytelling as a balm for troubles - does have some appeal. But of course 60 years ago, movies had far less competition (and attendance actually was more than twice as high as today).

These days, other factors may also be at work, particularly the sizable echo of the baby boom resulting in a rapid increase in teen-agers. Twelve- to 17-year-olds go to movies more than any other group. And as is no secret to anyone who's been down to the local multiplex lately, the vast majority of big films are made for and intensively marketed to teens.

In the last year or so, there's been a continual run of elaborately targeted blockbusters: from Lord of the Rings to Spider-Man to Star Wars: Episode II. Several more such spectacles are on the way, likely further fueling another box-office record. Then, of course, there'll be the sequels.

Now whether the Hollywood products fueling this boom are actually getting better is another matter entirely, one probably best not discussed with any teen-agers handy and almost irrelevant to the apparent allure of the sensory bath of today's mega-hits.

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