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The Big Screen Keeps Pulling Us In


If this noisy summer of box office braggadocio proves anything, it's the durability of the moviegoing experience, a phenomenon that has outlasted and transformed itself through every prediction of its demise from TV to pay-per-view.

After falling since its World War II-era heyday, American movie spending during the last 18 months has hit some of its highest levels in generations. Clearly, some of the growth is the result of ever-rising ticket prices and movie release tactics that saturate the marketplace to inflate opening-weekend box-office numbers.

But in other respects, the boom appears to be living up to its own hype, reflecting a true resurgence in an American pastime, despite the proliferation of other entertainment choices.

Movies aren't just surviving, they're also thriving:

* Movie ticket sales in 2001 reached their highest total in 40 years. Box-office receipts for 2002 are running about 20% higher, with $4 billion spent since January, according to Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., a box-office tracking firm.

* Blockbusters are climbing the charts: "Spider-Man" has become one of the 10 biggest-grossing films of all time, and "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones" should reach the $300-million mark soon. More potential blockbusters lie in wait: "Men in Black II," "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and "XXX" open this summer, and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" are due at year's end.

* High-grossing movies have been premiering almost weekly, beginning with "The Scorpion King" ($36.2 million) in April and continuing with "Spider-Man" ($114 million), "Scooby-Doo" ($56.4 million) and two studios claiming the top spot for the weekend of June 21 ("Lilo & Stitch" and "Minority Report," each with grosses of more than $30 million.)

* Four of the 10 top-grossing films of all time have been released in the last four years.

"The numbers really are astronomical," said John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners. "We're seeing increased moviegoing across age demographics and across social demographics."

A combination of factors continues to raise movie attendance: saturation releases, the proliferation of multiplexes, the release of a variety of films that appeal to different age groups and genders, and more marketing than ever before.

In 1946, movies lured 46% of the American public every week. Today, it's 14%. Still, movies continue to draw while other mass entertainments have stagnated or declined. Attendance has dropped this season at major league baseball, NFL and NBA games. Prime time television audiences for major networks continue to fall as cable channels proliferate. In pop music, sales of blank CDs outstripped sales of recorded music for the first time last year.

Why do Americans still go to movies when it's so easy to dial up a pay-per-view feature? "We're drawn to the 'electronic campfire,' " says Roderick Nash, professor emeritus of history at UC Santa Barbara. "We can rent movies and watch TV, but we still feel the need to gather together as groups around some object of interest."

It's also about storytelling, says Michael Marsden, a provost at Eastern Kentucky University and an editor of the Journal of Popular Film and Television. Bring on the stories, even if they are sequels. "Repetition is not a sin. We like repetition with a variance that becomes the point of interest for us in the storytelling process," he said.

So audiences continue to gather at the movies, especially drawn to spaces that have captured some of the flash, the neon, the sense of occasion of the grand movie palaces of the 1930s and '40s. Those grand movie palaces made it acceptable for people of all classes to go to the movies, Marsden said.

On a recent weekend at the Irvine Spectrum, "Star Wars" was showing 23 times a day. So Ryan Huttenberger, 17, of Lake Forest met his friends there, knowing there would be plenty to do while waiting for his film in an entertainment mall filled with restaurants, ice cream shops, video-game parlors and other teens.

"It might be an hour wait, but here, there's stuff to do," said Huttenberger. "Stuff" includes checking out "the scene" and "the honeys."

Lea Deakin of Oceanside turns out for movies about half a dozen times a year and only for event movies or special-effects movies.

"The vibe, the energy of opening nights of certain movies: There's something about opening night. The crowd's into it," Deakin said.

They're into it because they've bought into the hype. According to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, production expenses decreased in 2001 while marketing budgets increased. On average, studios spent $78.1 million on a film ($47.7 million for production and $31.01 million for marketing.)

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