Domestic box-office receipts topped $9 billion for the first time, with the final tally likely to be up about 10 percent from last year's record $8.35 billion.
Although some of that increase could be attributed to an estimated 5 percent increase in the price of a movie ticket, it also reflects a healthy rise in attendance, said Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
"Less originality sometimes breeds more box office," Dergarabedian said. "Much as people like to say they want to see something new, when people are spending money, it seems less of a gamble to see Mike Myers in 'Austin Powers' again."
The number of tickets sold in 2002 edged past 1.5 billion, the highest in decades, though still far below peak levels of the 1930s and '40s, before television became a prime source of entertainment.
Movie attendance has risen steadily in the past decade as theater chains built swankier venues with better seating and sound, and studios threw more marketing resources into big-event pictures such as "Spider-Man," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers," three of the year's hits.
"Spider-Man" is spinning a sequel, and the other two films already are part of franchises. Other follow-ups in 2002 included "Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones," "Austin Powers in Goldmember," "Men in Black II," "The Santa Clause 2" and the James Bond adventure "Die Another Day."
"I think the consistency with which we deliver good movies has been the key to this year," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution at Disney, which released "The Santa Clause 2" and had a hit from its Touchstone division with "Signs."
"To get to $9 billion, it's because the vast majority of films delivered on expectations."
Studios remained focused on advertising blitzes to produce huge opening weekends. "Spider-Man" shattered the record for best first weekend, grossing $114.8 million in the first three days on its way to a $406 million total, and pacing distributor Sony to a nearly $1.6 billion year, a record for a single studio.
Yet the feel-good romance "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" caught Hollywood by surprise, becoming an out-of-left-field blockbuster the old-fashioned way, by viewers spreading the word.
Shot for just $5 million, a fraction compared to big studio flicks, "Greek Wedding" climbed steadily to a $218 million return, remaining in the top 20 nine months after its initial release in a fast-food climate in which most movies linger only a month or two.
"I don't think anybody could have predicted it," said Rob Schwartz, head of distribution for IFC Films, which released "Greek Wedding." "I think it was just a picture that was universal in nature and spoke to everybody. You could have substituted one of many ethnicities. Big fat Italian wedding, big fat Jewish wedding. It could have been almost anybody."
Hollywood had a record seven $200 million-plus hits - "Spider-Man," "Attack of the Clones," "Chamber of Secrets," "Signs," "Greek Wedding," "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "The Two Towers" - one more than last year's record.
Other hits included "Ice Age," "Scooby-Doo," "Lilo & Stitch," "Minority Report," "Mr. Deeds," "The Ring" and "Sweet Home Alabama."
Flops included three Eddie Murphy flicks: "The Adventures of Pluto Nash," "Showtime" and "I Spy." Disney's animated "Treasure Planet" also tanked, while "Star Trek: Nemesis" faded quickly and could finish as the lowest-grossing of the sci-fi franchise's 10 movies.
At the start of 2002, studios were antsy about whether audiences would continue filling cinema seats given the economic downturn and the war on terrorism. If anything, though, moviegoers seemed more eager than ever to head to theaters and forget their cares for awhile.
"Whenever the country's been down a little bit economically or there's threats from around the world, the movie business is still a way to escape," said Tom Sherak, a partner in Revolution Studios, whose film slate for Sony included "XXX" and "Maid in Manhattan."