Bradley Cooper, left, Zach Galifianakis and Ed Helms star in "The… (Warner Bros. Pictures )
After shunning multiplexes for months, moviegoers returned to theaters in droves over the holiday for bawdy jokes, 3-D cartoon pandas and even meditations on the mysteries of life, pushing box-office receipts to a Memorial Day weekend record.
Americans spent an estimated $280 million at the movies from Friday to Monday, surpassing the previous high of $255 million set in 2007, before the recession, and blowing by 2010's paltry $192.7-million take.
That's good news for Hollywood, which had been despairing over lackluster ticket sales for months; through late April, sales were down roughly 17% and attendance had fallen 18% compared with 2010, according to Hollywood.com, which tracks such figures.
This weekend, though, theaters were packed. Leading the charge was "The Hangover Part II," the sequel to the 2009 hit about three friends trying to figure out what transpired during a debauched night out. The movie grossed $137.4 million over five days in North America, according to an estimate from distributor Warner Bros., the biggest opening for any R-rated comedy.
The upturn at the box office began about a month ago, with the release of Universal Studios' "Fast Five," a heist film featuring high-speed cars that took in $86.2 million in its first weekend and has already passed the $500-million mark worldwide. Since then, receipts have been buoyed by blockbusters such as the fourth film in Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise and the superhero movie "Thor"; now, revenue is down about 9% compared with last year, and attendance is off 10%.
With big films such as "Green Lantern," the third Michael Bay "Transformers" movie and the eighth and final "Harry Potter" picture coming out before Labor Day, the domestic box-office tally could catch up to 2010 levels by the end of the summer. All three of those films and a slew of other big-budget movies will be released in 3-D over the next few months, though it remains to be seen whether moviegoers will opt for those more expensive tickets.
So far, no film in 2011 has surpassed the $100-million mark domestically in its first three days of release, a feat accomplished last year by four films, including "Toy Story 3" and "Iron Man 2."
Business overseas, however, has been strong and is becoming increasingly important to Hollywood studios as moviegoing has grown in Latin America, Russia and elsewhere. The latest "Pirates" film, which has been out for just over 10 days, has made nearly $635 million worldwide — with about 74% of that coming from overseas. That's up from the last "Pirates," in 2007, when foreign earnings accounted for about 68% of its worldwide box office. "Fast Five" has earned more than 63% of its revenue overseas, up from about 57% for the previous installment in the series.
Warner Bros. gave "The Hangover Part II" an international push as well, opening it over the weekend in 40 foreign markets, including France, Germany and Australia. It's rare that studios open comedies simultaneously across the world, as American humor doesn't always translate globally, but the first "Hangover" was a surprise hit overseas, collecting $190 million there. The second film is on its way toward that figure, having taken in $59 million abroad this past weekend.
Last year, receipts at the U.S. box office in the first half were bolstered by the megahits "Avatar" and "Alice in Wonderland," and many in the industry say the lack of such event films and quality content has kept audiences at home in 2011.
Compared with last year, moviegoers under 25 were 15% less likely to indicate that they were going to go to movies on any given weekend, according a survey conducted this spring by research firm Ipsos OTX. The No. 1 reason? "There's not as much I wanted to see."
"We are all pushed to the theater by content, and the content that was available was not of interest to people," said Dan Fellman, president of domestic distribution for Warner Bros. "Every time there's a glitch or a drop in the box office, it's panic time. But this is a circular business. There are periods where the product is great and not-so-great, and now the industry has turned a corner."
But there are other factors that may be keeping audiences away from theaters, namely higher gasoline and ticket prices and the increasing popularity of video-on-demand or subscription services like Netflix, not to mention video games and other digital media.
Outside of Regal Cinemas at L.A. Live on Friday night, 18-year-old Suzette Castro — who was about to see the second "Hangover" film — said she and her friends rarely go to theaters anymore.
"I watch movies on-demand like once a week," she said. "It's always the same type of movie over and over again in theaters, and it's just not as fun as it used to be to go to the movies."