The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Hollywood's box-office bonanza: Why are we still going to the movies?

December 10, 2009 |  2:16 pm

It's not even the middle of December yet and, according the Associated Press, Hollywood has already set an all-time box-office record, with domestic theatrical revenues having passed the previous record -- 2007's $9.68 billion -- with a possible $10.5 billion mark easily in sight before year's end.

All in all, it's pretty impressive, especially when you consider that all these sky-high grosses come less than two years after the end of the ugly 2007-2008 writers strike, the one in which every studio executive in town was crying poverty and bemoaning the end of the industry as we know it, saying theatrical moviegoing was slowly being wiped out by piracy, pricey home entertainment systems and all sorts of horrific Internet threats.

But now the worm has turned. I'm actually not making light of the studio doomsayers, because I have to admit that -- ahem -- I was just as guilty of doomsday thinking as any showbiz executive. When the box office was slumping a few years ago, I was at the head of the line, brooding about the waning of an era of mass moviegoing, with young moviegoers (who make up the bulk of reliable repeat customers) having far too many attractive alternatives to being suckered into seeing "GI Joe," "2012," "G-Force" or "Terminator: Salvation." It seemed as if we'd reached the saturation point, at least when it came to the empty-headed special-effects clunkers that crowd the multiplexes all summer long.

So maybe I was wrong? I wasn't the only one, because worrying about the sky falling is a popular media pastime. But what turned things around so quickly?

You could argue that this year is an anomaly, because it's been an usually good year for satisfying mainstream pictures. Even if you toss out the dreck, we still have "Star Trek," "District 9," "The Hangover," "Fast & Furious," "Up," "Inglorious Basterds," "The Blind Side" and "Paranormal Activity," which all topped $100 million in the U.S. and were multiplex mainstays throughout the year. 

It's also a truism that moviegoing always goes up during a recession, with audiences responding to hard times by using it as a cheap substitute for taking a vacation, heading off to the AMC 16 instead of flying to Hawaii or Las Vegas. After all, is seeing "Transformers" really all that different than spending a night at the Excalibur in Vegas?

Still, let's give credit where its due. People still dig going out to the movies. It's a relatively cheap form of entertainment, especially when compared with going to a Lakers game or an Eagles concert. It makes people feel as if they've had a brief escape from their troubles. It's also a great way to get away from your parents if you're a teen on a date. It's a habit that, despite all the competition from new technology, remains firmly in our cultural DNA. A night at the movies has a cozy familiarity that sticks to our bones, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.

But this year's box-office boom can also be traced to a host of filmmakers stepping up to the plate and hitting a home run -- but without stooping to conquer. As I look back over the last couple of years, I'd argue that we have an entire generation of younger filmmakers who not only are making cool films but are eager to connect with a mass audience. People like me are always celebrating the likes of P.T. Anderson and Martin Scorsese -- and rightfully so, because they are once-in-a-generation talents -- but its time we also gave props to the smart commercial filmmakers who've managed to connect with audiences in a big way these days.

Whether it's Todd Phillips or John Hamburg in comedy (and of course, Judd Apatow, who'll surely be back after this summer's misfire), popcorn auteurs such as J.J. Abrams and Pete Doctor or promising newcomers such as Neill Blomkamp and Oren Peli, we have a wide range of gifted younger filmmakers who are all clearly at home making mainstream entertainment without smoothing away all the sharp edges and who can often provide subversive inspiration.

With specialty films in decline, we also should give credit to the industry's Big Six studios, which have often encouraged and supported filmmaking talents and allowed them to put new, often personal twists on familiar commercial genres. The industry has a host of smart, filmmaker-friendly executives who've found a way to strike a balance between art and commerce. It wasn't so long ago that all I would hear was complaints about the suits in positions of power. But today's executives, notably Warner Bros.' Jeff Robinov, Sony's Amy Pascal, Fox's Tom Rothman, Universal's Donna Langley and Paramount's Rob Moore, aren't simply good movie pickers; they are savvy relationship-builders who've encouraged the kind of loyalty that keeps filmmakers in the studio fold for years.

Records are made to be broken, but this year's box office is probably no fluke. Even if the DVD business is in a slow fade, it feels like it's never been more fun to go out to the movies.

Photo: Universal Studios Cinema at Universal CityWalk. Credit: George Wilhelm / Los Angeles Times.