The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Big January: What is really going on in the movie business

February 3, 2009 |  2:35 pm

The whole country is going to hell in a handbasket, with reports of horrific new job losses popping up every day, and yet -- people keep going to the movies. As we reported Monday, the box office in January was up nearly 19% from January 2008, an amazing jump considering the bleak state of the country's economy. I confess that the news was so good that, at first, I didn't believe it. After all, there were five weekends in January 2009, only four weekends in January 2008. Since roughly 70% of the week's business comes from the three-day weekend, wasn't the upswing simply the result of having an extra weekend?

Paul_blart_mall_copNot so, says Media by Numbers box-office guru Paul Dergarabedian, who, as it turns out, included the first weekend of February 2008 in his calculations, allowing the numbers to reflect five weekends from each year. Yet this year's business was still sky-high. This January had a couple of breakout hits with "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and "Gran Torino" (which was released in December but made $100 million in January). But last January had plenty of hits too, including "Cloverfield," which made $67 million in January, "Juno" (which did $74 million of its business in January) and "The Bucket List," which made $60 million in January.

So what's going on? My favorite crackpot conspiracy theory comes from Nikki Finke, who, having apparently missed our front-page business section story Monday,  claimed that the box-office spurt was being hushed up by "compliant Hollywood news outlets" at the behest of the movie studios, which she says are eagerly playing down the good news, fearing that it would hurt their negotiating position in upcoming contract talks with SAG. (Of course, now that Ramblin' Alan Rosenberg isn't just singing the blues but suing his union too, trying to undo its decision to oust chief negotiator Doug Allen, it seems unlikely that negotiations will get underway anytime soon.)

I think the reason for the film business upswing is simple enough: People are dying to be distracted from their troubles. When times are hard, heading off to the movies for two hours is a great escape. As Dergarabedian memorably put it: "Going to the movies is the new vacation." If a movie is any good at all, the experience is restorative. You sit in the dark, surrounded by strangers, not having to make conversation, basking in the passive pleasure of being told a compelling story. It's a way of letting go and having a shared emotional experience all at the same time. Being in the dark in a crowded theater, seeing something bigger-than-life up on the screen, has often been compared to a dream-like state -- and with good reason.

When things are going well, it's fun to be connected, to surf the Web and stay in touch with the gossip and hurly-burly of modern life. But when times are grim, you want to be untethered and taken away. For two hours, you get to have a new story rattling around in your head, a story that might have a happier ending than the one you're living with right now. Just as researchers say that people during a recession tend to go off diets and turn to pork chops, potatoes and rich desserts, in times of trouble, the movies feed our subconscious -- they're the ultimate comfort food.