$10 is small price for a big escape

Movie box office figures are flourishing despite, or because of, economic worries

July 08, 2008|By John Woestendiek and Chris Kaltenbach | John Woestendiek and Chris Kaltenbach,Sun reporters

Melissa Williams was back at the movies this weekend. This summer, it has become her leisure activity of choice - or maybe necessity.

Having seen Iron Man, the new Indiana Jones movie and Sex and the City - "There's just so many good movies out," she says - she was back with friends from Fort Meade to catch Wanted.

A lot of factors are driving Williams to the Muvico Egyptian this summer - it's a short drive for one thing; a lot of good movies are out for another. On top of that, the movies offer her a two-hour escape from the heat, which was a big incentive when her air conditioning went out. Then, there's the biggest motivation of all:

"There's not a whole lot you can do for $10 anymore," said Williams, 35.

The movie industry has historically enjoyed a jump in sales when the economy takes a major dip. This summer, after five straight record-setting weekends, the industry is on track to beat its revenue record set last summer, when sales topped $4 billion for the first time.

With gas prices spiraling - about two gallons' worth now equals the average movie admission - people are seeking low-cost entertainment, close to home. More often than not, movies fit the ticket.

Even though the July Fourth weekend didn't provide a sixth straight week of increased admissions, the number of tickets sold this summer is still up 2 percent over last year, and, since many theaters have raised the price of those tickets, total revenue is up as well.

"There's a bunch of things going on," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office tracking firm Media By Numbers. "The movies are good. ... There's just been a slew of hits that have been performing above and beyond expectations."

Add in the recession resistance of the movie industry - in five of the seven recessions since the mid-1960s, box office revenues and attendance increased - and gasoline prices that have people on the edge of their seats and off the roads, and you have an audience in need of short, inexpensive escapes. And that's exactly (if you avoid the concession stand) what the movies offer.

"People don't have the money for gas, so they're staying home. But you get tired of being home," said Williams as she joined the throngs at the multiplex at Arundel Mills on Saturday - crowds so huge she couldn't find an acceptable seat in Wanted.

Instead, she stepped outside for a smoke, sitting on a bench as more moviegoers kept pouring in - families, groups of friends and couples she suspects are, like her, going to movies to escape more than the heat.

"It's escapism, absolutely. It's probably a subconscious thing, and people don't realize it. But there's just so much going on, with people trying to pay their mortgages and get by. It's an escape for a couple of hours."

Hollywood doesn't argue with, or apologize for, that.

At the Muvico Egyptian over the weekend, customers, after standing in line to buy $10 tickets, were waiting for 10 minutes or more for $6 ("Best Value") bags of popcorn, $3.50 Raisinets, Twizzlers and Goobers and $5 small sodas.

"It's air conditioned, and it's still cheaper than going to an O's game," said Holly Garman, a law school student at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. "For $10, you can't even put two gallons of gas in your car."

Sharon Douglass of Baltimore County said that while she's cutting back in most areas - driving chief among them - going to the movies is still "the least expensive outing, and it keeps your mind off your troubles."

Douglass and two longtime friends were headed into Sex and the City, which has become a surprise blockbuster, earning more than $140 million since it opened May 30.

Despite the lack of a Titanic-like mega-movie, a steady stream of popular and midlevel films has helped keep attendance up, industry insiders say.

In years past, "summer blockbusters and serious dramas all came out at the same time, and they all killed each other, because none of them had a chance to breathe, a chance to be found," said Patrick Corcoran, director of media and research for the National Alliance of Theater Owners.

This summer, he said, the wealth is being more widely shared, and "there's a better mix of films. We need all of kinds of film, and you need them spaced out throughout the year."

According to a recent report in Variety, most of the revenues last year went to a few top-grossing movies. Movies that ranked 11th to 15th in receipts last year brought in just more than $19 million. This year, the 11th- to 15th-ranked films have grossed nearly $38 million.

With the gasoline crunch, and AAA reporting two straight holidays of declining travel (Memorial Day and the Fourth of July), the proliferation of multiplexes over the past two decades is paying off. There are more theaters in the United States and - at least in the cities and the suburbs - less distance to drive to get to the movie of your choice.

"There are things that go in tough economic times," Dan Fellman, president of distribution for Warner Bros., told Variety last month, "but movies aren't on that list."

Saturday's 5:25 p.m. showing of Wanted offered proof of that.

"It was just packed to the gills," said Williams, who even tried a three-people-in-two-seats arrangement so she could be with friends and avoid the front row.

"I think they're overselling," she said as she finished her cigarette on the outdoor bench, debated "Hulking out" on the theater management, then opted for a more low-key approach.

"I think I'll go back in and just stand up and watch."

john.woestendiek@baltsun.com

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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