No Records, But Hollywood Can't Gripe

In this image released by Warner Bros., Heath Ledger starring as The Joker, is shown in a scene from "The Dark Knight." AP/Warner Bros., Stephen Vaughan

Hollywood loves breaking box-office records, yet studio executives aren't griping that their 2008 lineup will fall a bit shy of the all-time high set a year earlier.

With the overall economy in the pits, movie moguls are just glad to have weathered the year with faithful audiences that continued to crowd into theaters.

"Last year was the record of all time. The economy's tough. Things are bad out there, and I think if we can have another record-breaking year or close to it, I figure we'll all be happy," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution for Warner Bros., which released the year's biggest hit with "The Dark Knight" ($531 million).

Through New Year's Eve, 2008 domestic revenues are expected to come in just shy of 2007's record of $9.7 billion, according to box-office tracker Media By Numbers. Factoring in inflation, the actual number of tickets sold in 2008 is running 5 percent behind last year's, when admissions totaled 1.4 billion.

Hollywood historically survives recessions better than many businesses because movies remain relatively cheap compared with sporting events, live theater and other forms of entertainment.

While consumer belt-tightening no doubt costs studios some cash, the list of 2008 blockbusters is a sign of a healthy business delivering the goods across every genre.

With a $158.4 million debut, the Batman sequel "The Dark Knight" shattered the record for best opening weekend and has put Heath Ledger on track for a possible posthumous Academy Award as the maniacal villain the Joker.

Paramount and Marvel Studios' "Iron Man" was the superhero runner-up with a $318.3 million haul. Old-school hero Harrison Ford cracked his whip again as Paramount's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" followed closely with $317 million.

Among other smashes: Sony's Will Smith adventure "Hancock" and James Bond thriller "Quantum of Solace"; Universal's action tale "Wanted"; and a rush of animated comedies led by the Disney-Pixar charmer "WALL-E."

While young males remained Hollywood's core audience, girls and women flocked to theaters for the Warner Bros. comedy "Sex and the City"; Summit Entertainment's vampire romance "Twilight"; Universal's musical "Mamma Mia!"; and Disney's "Hannah Montana" concert flick.

Quality-wise, the summer blockbusters came in a cut above the usual lineup of silly action and lowbrow comedy. Critics liked "Iron Man" and adored "WALL-E" and "The Dark Knight," the latter heading toward Jan. 22 Oscar nominations with best-picture buzz.

The 2008 lineup showed that hit movies do not "have to be a mindless concept," said Rob Moore, vice chairman of Paramount, whose 2008 successes also included the comedy "Tropic Thunder," featuring fresh and wildly different performances from "Iron Man" star Robert Downey Jr. and Tom Cruise. "If you tell a compelling story, you can get an audience to show up."

With a huge Christmas weekend, Hollywood continued to serve up must-see movies, from 20th Century Fox's family tale "Marley & Me" to a surge of awards contenders such as "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Doubt," "Revolutionary Road" and "Gran Torino."

When they see films they like, audiences tend to come back for more. So the goodwill gained from recent successes should help carry the movie business into 2009 - as long as the movies remain good, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers.

"It's vitally important now more than ever that movies deliver, because people are careful about what they're spending their money on. So they have to be satisfied with the product," Dergarabedian said. "When audiences use the movies as a retreat from their everyday troubles, that retreat had better make them feel good."

By David Germain
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