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2008 meltdown? Not for movies
11:49 AM

By Scott Bowles

Nothing serves Hollywood better than a world on the brink.

Look at the year in film. War and a full-blown recession haven't stopped moviegoers from plunking down $10 a ticket. Brisk business over the Christmas weekend pushed 2008 ticket sales to $9.5 billion — within striking distance of the record set last year of $9.6 billion.

Of course, rising ticket prices means that attendance remains relatively flat, and it could dip slightly from last year.

But given the economic climate, "you'd have to say that this has been a pretty good year. The movie business is a lot healthier than most industries," says Gitesh Pandya of

"It's clichéd, but it's true that movies do well when other things are going poorly," Pandya says. "Movies are still relatively cheap compared to other forms of entertainment, and more importantly, they're the best way for people to escape reality."

That may explain why superheroes enjoyed unprecedented success at the cineplex. Comic-book adaptations raked in more than $1.2 billion this year — and that doesn't include non-comic crime fighters such as Hancock, Indiana Jones and James Bond.

"The movies that are going to resonate most with people are the ones that reflect the times," says Christopher Nolan, director of the Batman sequel The Dark Knight, the year's biggest film at $530.9 million, the second-highest-grossing movie of all time.

"I think people want to see stories about good and evil," he says, "and people trying to do the right thing."

Whether audiences turn out in similar numbers next year, however, is in doubt. A strike by the Writers Guild this year rushed some movies into production or halted some pictures altogether.

On average, 600 movies hit theaters every year. Analysts and studio executives expect that number to drop 10% to 15% next year due to the strike.

"Normally the complaint is that we put out too many movies," says Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount Pictures. "But with the writers going on strike, you're going to see a real dropoff, especially in the last half of '09."

Moore says that will put more pressure on big movies to perform. "If you look at this Christmas, we had five big new movies, and they were very different," he says. "If one movie didn't do well, there were others to take up the slack. I think next year, you won't have that safety net."

A few movies have staked out Christmas Day 2009: Disney's animated The Princess and the Frog, Alvin and the Chipmunks II, an untitled Hugh Grant-Sarah Jessica Parker comedy and an untitled comedy from writer/producer/director Nancy Meyers (Something's Gotta Give).

Another question, even some executives admit, is the caliber of 2009's movies.

"The real impact of the strike could be felt next year," says Erik Lomis, head of distribution for MGM. "Some things were put on hold, some things were rushed to beat the strike, perhaps to a lesser quality. You never want to see that happen, but it's a concern."

Still, studios have a two-pronged attack to lure moviegoers: franchises and 3-D.

There will be a few stalwarts in next year's slate, including new installments of the X-Men, Harry Potter and Transformers series.

But 2009 will be seen largely as a test of technology as theaters go digital and studios go three-dimensional. More than 1,100 theaters will be equipped to show 3-D movies next year, up from about 800 this year. Disney alone has five 3-D films on tap, including concert flicks with Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers.

"In the next two to three years, most theaters are going to be capable of showing 3-D movies, and it could become the norm," says Disney's Chuck Viane. "You have to keep offering people something they can't get at home."

But 20th Century Fox's Bert Livingston says 2009 also could test whether the industry will rely more on gimmickry than script as technology advances. "Within five years, most movies are going to be in 3-D," he says. "But it's only going to work if 3-D is an additive. If you substitute it for story, it will never work."

And those stories need to be more positive next year, says Sheila DeLoach, senior vice president of Fox Searchlight.

"Movies typically do well in tough times, but lately the movies that are also uplifting are doing the best," says DeLoach, whose studio has a small hit in Slumdog Millionaire. "We need to carry that into next year. Look at the movies this year, and the escapes from reality were hits. There were a lot."


Batman. For all the publicity surrounding Heath Ledger's death and the anticipation following director Christopher Nolan's hit Batman Begins, The Dark Knight met expectations — and then some. The movie has raked in $530.9 million, and the DVD sold 10 million units in its first week. "It was a bit unreal, watching the (box-office) numbers come in each week," Nolan says. "I don't think anyone realized just much this franchise meant to people."

Older women. Once seen as a second-thought demographic, female moviegoers 30 and older propelled some of the year's biggest films, including Twilight ($167.3 million), Sex and the City ($152.6 million) and Mamma Mia! ($143.8 million). "They may not always come out on opening night like teenage girls, but older women love a good movie as much as anyone," says Nikki Rocco of Universal Pictures, which released Mamma. "Their time has come."

Animation. Though it might not enjoy the huge opening weekends it once did, the genre remains one of the most dependable; four of the top 10 films this year are cartoons. "The thing animation has that a lot of genres don't is repeat viewings," says Disney's Chuck Viane, whose studio had what looked like a disappointment in the animated Bolt, which opened in third place last month with $26 million. This weekend it crossed the $100 million mark. "Kids will see animated movies three or four times. (Animated films) have become the marathon runners of movies."

Tom Cruise. What a difference a year makes. After last year's flop Lions for Lambs, epitaphs abounded for the star. But his turn as a ruthless studio mogul was the talk of Tropic Thunder and won him a Golden Globe nomination, and Valkyrie earned $29.5 million on its opening weekend, far exceeding projections. There have even been murmurs of director Ben Stiller returning for a Tropic Thunder spinoff centered on Cruise's character, Les Grossman, though nothing has been finalized. "I had no idea Les Grossman would take off like that. I just knew it would be crazy and fun," Cruise says. "But that's the beauty of movies. It doesn't matter what the press says. The people are the only ones who decide."


Politics. Hollywood had its best shot at generating a hit off of current events with Body of Lies, a $70 million action film by Ridley Scott with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. It took in just $39.2 million. It joins Oliver Stone's W. ($25.5 million) as the latest Hollywood political casualties.

Speed Racer. The film that was to get summer in high gear got stuck in neutral. The action film from Andy and Larry Wachowski cost $120 million in computer-generated effects but could generate only $43.9 million, one of the biggest bombs of the year.

Sports movies. Usually a pretty bankable genre, sports flicks flopped this year, even with big stars behind them. George Clooney's football comedy Leatherheads did a paltry $31.2 million, while Will Ferrell's basketball laugher Semi-Pro netted just $33.5 million.

Crude comedy. Who would have thought movies geared toward immature males would flop? But as Mike Myers' The Love Guru ($32.2 million) and the raunchy Sex Drive ($8.4 million) prove, audiences weren't in the mood to pull your finger.

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