Hollywood did its part to stimulate the economy last month, producing the first billion-dollar January with an eclectic mix of films including the surprisingly popular "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" comedy and the Clint Eastwood drama "Gran Torino."
Even in the face of Super Bowl events, box-office revenue remained strong this weekend, grossing an estimated $129.0 million, up 1% from last year's $127.7 million, according to industry tracking firm Media by Numbers.
Recession-weary audiences generated an unprecedented $1.03 billion in revenue in a month that is not known for its big box office. That's an increase of nearly 19% from last January's $867.2 million. And that's not counting popcorn or nachos.
Industry watchers said the unexpectedly strong January, which pushed action film "Taken" to the top this weekend, suggested that movies were benefiting from the economic downturn by providing a relatively cheap escape from the drumbeat of layoffs, bankruptcies and other bad news.
"Going to the movies is the new vacation," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers.
An increase in ticket prices also helped boost January's box office. The average ticket price was $7.29 last month, up from $7.18 a year ago. But attendance surged in spite of the higher cost. Audiences bought 141 million movie tickets in January, up 16% from the 121 million sold during the same month last year.
"People always complain about the price of movie tickets," Dergarabedian said. "Yet at a time when people are hyper-aware of what they are spending, they don't seem to be having any trouble going to the movies."
Although attendance declined during the Great Depression, movies remained hugely popular during the 1930s -- far more so than today -- with 27-cent tickets, door prizes and happy endings. These days, people have far more competition from cheaper forms of entertainment, including television, the Internet and DVDs.
Still, seeing movies appeals to people who want to go out and stay current. Compared with other forms of entertainment outside the home -- such as NBA games and rock concerts -- movies remain relatively inexpensive, said Mark Young, who teaches entertainment business at USC's Marshall School of Business.
And, as they were during the Depression, happy endings could be a big sell these days, Young said.
"People have been so depressed with the economy that it could be, with Obama's election, maybe there is more of a sense of optimism and people are saying, 'I'm going to go spend money again,' " he said. "Or they may be saying, 'I'm depressed and I really need something to perk me up.' "
"Taken," with 6-foot-4 Liam Neeson as a vigilante father, pushed box-office heavyweight "Paul Blart" out of the top spot that it had held for two weeks. The 20th Century Fox film grossed $24.6 million, earning it the second-best Super Bowl weekend opening. The "Hannah Montana" concert movie last year retained that honor with $31 million.
Sony/Columbia's "Paul Blart" came in second over the weekend, bagging $14 million for a three-week total of $83.4 million.
Audiences also were taken with "The Uninvited" from Paramount Pictures. The scary movie was third, with an estimated gross of $10.5 million. "Hotel for Dogs," also from Paramount, and "Gran Torino," from Warner Bros., rounded out the top five, pulling in $8.7 million and $8.6 million respectively.
"Taken" attracted almost as many women as men, as well as viewers of all ages. "It was an all-audience movie," said 20th Century Fox spokesman Bert Livingston.
Livingston said the studio saw little competition on the horizon and expected "Taken" to remain strong.
The Oscar bump appeared to be working for "Slumdog Millionaire," which received 10 Academy Award nominations. The story of a Mumbai street kid's journey to fame and, perhaps, fortune pulled in $7.7 million over the weekend, bringing its 12-week total to $67.2 million.
Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," with 13 Academy Award nominations, took in $3.6 million over the weekend for a six-week total of $116.5 million.
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Preliminary results in the U.S. and Canada, based on studio projections:
*--* Movie 3-day gross Total Weeks (studio) (millions) (millions) 1 Taken (Fox) $24.6 $24.6 1
2 Paul Blart: Mall Cop 14.0 83.4 3 (Sony-Columbia)
3 The Uninvited (Paramount) 10.5 10.5 1
4 Hotel for Dogs (Paramount) 8.7 48.2 3
5 Gran Torino (Warner Bros.) 8.6 110.5 8
6 Slumdog Millionaire (Fox) 7.7 67.2 12
7 Underworld: Rise of the Lycans 7.2 32.8 2 (Sony/Screen Gems)
8 New in Town (Lionsgate) 6.8 6.8 1
9 My Bloody Valentine 3-D 4.3 44.6 3 (Lionsgate)
10 Inkheart (Warner Bros.) 3.7 12.8 2 *--*
*--* 3-day gross Change Year-to-date gross Change (in millions) from 2008 (in billions) from 2008 $129.0 +1.0% $1.03 +18.6% *--*
Note: A movie may be shown on more than one screen at each venue.
Source: Media by Numbers