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Movies are thriving, despite the economy

In tough times, they offer low-cost escape

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Associated Press / March 11, 2008

LAS VEGAS - Hollywood thrives when the economy dives.

It was true during the Depression, when Americans managed to scrape together nickels and dimes for an escape to the movies. Even as evidence mounts that people are tightening up on other expenses, movie attendance this year has been running ahead of 2007 numbers - welcome news at ShoWest, the annual convention of theater owners, which opens here today.

Box-office revenues went up in five of the past seven recession years dating back to the 1960s, according to the National Association of Theatre Owners.

While budget-conscious consumers may hold off buying that 50-inch plasma television set, "it seems they can always pull together the money to go to the movies," said critic and film historian Leonard Maltin. "They're not making a monthly commitment," he said. "They're just shelling out the 10 bucks."

Economists are still debating whether the US economy is headed for recession - or is already in one - but closely watched indicators have been bleak, with employers shedding jobs and consumers reeling from high gas prices and tight credit.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is more than holding its own, with revenues running 4 percent ahead of last year's, according to box-office tracker Media By Numbers.

Factoring in higher admission prices, attendance was up 7 percent over last year as of a few weeks ago, before a few box-office duds, such as the Will Ferrell comedy "Semi-Pro," arrived. It's since fallen back to a 0.5 percent gain.

Though virtually everyone gripes about the cost of snacks at concession stands, the average movie ticket price last year was $6.88 - cheaper than for sporting events, concerts, or bowling.

"It's certainly much cheaper than a psychiatrist," said Dan Glickman, who heads the Motion Picture Association of America. "To go into a darkened room where nobody can find you for two hours is great therapy, particularly when times are bad."

"We don't want to wish recession on anyone or hard times on anyone, but we certainly have done very well during recessions," said John Fithian, president of the theater owners group.

In the 1930s, amid America's longest and bleakest economic bust, movie attendance tumbled initially as investment money for films dried up. But in the heart of the Depression, from the early to late 1930s, attendance shot up.

Granted, there was less to do then. "What were your options? Radio, books, and movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media By Numbers.

But the basic lure of movies is the same: a chance to get away.

"It's escape from everything," Maltin said. "It's a chance to, like all those song lyrics [say], 'Forget your troubles, come on get happy.' "


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