Lunes 1 de Julio de 2002, Ip nš 18

Moviegoers are flocking to forget their troubles
Por Rick Lyman

At a time when viewership and attendance are either flat or shrinking in virtually every form of pop-culture entertainment, Hollywood is enjoying one of the biggest bursts of popularity and profitability in its history.

Box-office revenues for the first five and a half months of 2002 are up at least 20 percent over that period in 2001, which was already a record year. Even taking slightly higher prices into account, the number of people actually buying tickets and going to movies is up around 16 percent from last year.

Meanwhile, the major broadcast television networks are attracting fewer eyes. Magazine subscriptions are down. Single-copy sales are plummeting. Consumer book sales? Down. Spending on CD's and other forms of recorded music? Waning. Even rental and sales of videos and DVD's are off. Most major theme parks have seen sparser crowds, as have many major sporting events.

The movie surge has left Hollywood executives, marketers, analysts and theater owners searching to explain their sudden, unexpected bounty -- and why it seems to be affecting the movies almost exclusively.

''The usual answer when there's an upturn is that it's good movies and good movie houses,'' said John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners. ''But when you look back, the truth is that Hollywood always does well when people feel unsettled or challenged. For whatever reason, Americans seek comfort in the movies.''

The 2002 boom was fueled first by movies released during last year's holiday period. Those movies, like ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' and ''The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,'' made much -- in some cases, most -- of their money this year.

But it has continued, week by week, with a string of hits like ''Black Hawk Down,'' ''Ice Age,'' ''Panic Room'' and, more recently, ''Spider-Man,'' ''Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones,'' ''The Sum of All Fears'' and ''Scooby-Doo.''

Many point to factors outside the movie industry, from the sluggish economic recovery to lingering anxiety about the state of the world. Others cite the proficiency of Hollywood marketers at turning almost every weekend's opening into a major pop-culture event. Still others mention new multiplexes with stadium-seating, digital sound systems and other bells and whistles designed to make a trip to the movies more enticing.

''You know, it's air-conditioned,'' said Terry Press, the marketing chief at Dreamworks. ''The seat is comfortable. You can sit there and eat candy. And it's still a very unifying experience.''

So why don't they go out and sit with other people at the ball game?

''Sports is not a fantasy, it's reality,'' she said. ''At certain times, people want to be told stories and they want it to happen outside the house, in a communal setting.''

Some even maintain -- with straight faces -- that this upsurge must mean that the movies themselves have gotten better.

''That's a hoot,'' said George F. Custen, a professor of cinema studies at the City University of New York.

The consensus is that, on average, Hollywood studio movies have gotten demonstrably worse in recent years -- safer, more predictable, more likely to be sequels, franchises or some other form of risk-averse pablum.

''Everyone is doing a lot more prequels, sequels and introducing already branded elements like Spider-Man or Scooby-Doo,'' said Amir Malin, chief executive of Artisan Entertainment. ''It makes the job of marketing so much easier. But the fact is, when we are making films the audience wants to see, they show up.''

This is what frightens many filmmakers and critics -- that the recent box-office rush shows that these are exactly the kinds of films that today's audience, in its heart of hearts, is looking for.

''At times of stress and transition, we go to the cinema not to escape, but to be reassured,'' Professor Custen said.

Television doesn't serve this function because it's not communal, and because of the myriad distractions of the home, whether a ringing phone or the newspaper on the coffee table.

''At the movies, people are brought together for a specific, temporary purpose,'' Professor Custen said. ''You sense that there is a sort of connection between you and the other people in the dark. And at the same time, you are declaring by the movies you choose to see, and the way you react to them, exactly where you stand, politically and within society. It's a ritual we engage in to declare what kind of Americans we are.''

While it is true that movies almost always do well during economic downturns -- they are, after all, inexpensive compared with other forms of entertainment outside the home -- David Davis, a box-office analyist for Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin, an investment banking firm, found a closer parallel to the current boom in the years immediately following Pearl Harbor.

''In 1940, movie attendance was at 3.1 billion,'' he said. ''By 1943, it had risen to 4.3 billion, an increase of about 40 percent in just three years of war. And it wasn't caused by a drop in ticket prices, either. The average ticket cost 24 cents in 1940 and 29 cents in 1943. Box office revenues went from $735 million to $1.3 billion. It almost doubled in three years. Maybe it really is that simple: people like to escape during a crisis.''

Still, this doesn't entirely explain why the pop-culture boom seems to be so movie-specific. Why aren't people watching more television or buying more escapist literature?

PricewaterhouseCoopers' recently published ''Global Entertainment and Media Outlook: 2002-2006'' has dreary news for nearly all forms of popular entertainment.

Consumer spending on recorded music was down 4.1 percent in 2001 and is predicted to fall another 1.1 percent this year. Ratings for the major broadcast networks were down 4.8 percent last year and are expected to fall another 5.3 percent this year. Even increased viewership on basic and pay cable channels has been insufficient to do more than keep overall television viewing essentially flat, only 0.8 percent over last year.

The printed word was hit even harder. The overall United States magazine market fell 10.9 percent in 2001, with predictions for an additional 2.6 drop this year. Subscriptions were down 2.1 percent in 2001, and single copy sales down 8.6 percent.

And consumer book sales decreased 5.6 percent from 2000 to 2001. Only two categories showed growth, book clubs (up 0.7 percent) and religious books (up 2.4 percent). The accounting firm predicts a further drop of 0.7 percent in book sales this year.

Gate revenues did rise more than 11.8 percent for major sporting events in 2001, but a closer examination shows this was largely attributable to escalating ticket prices. Actual attendance rose only 1 percent and was down for several sports.

The PricewaterhouseCoopers report predicts a 7-percent rise this year in rentals and sales of videos and DVD's, but it hasn't happened yet. Scott Hettrick, editor in chief of Video News, an industry trade publication, said that so far this year sales and rentals have actually been down about 2 percent.

Yet at the movies, all seems rosy.

Paul Dergarabedian, chairman of Exhibitor Relations, a company that tracks the box office, estimates that revenues were up nearly 20 percent for the first 167 days of the year compared with the same period last year. Mr. Fithian of the theater owners' association said his members' figures showed an even larger rise, of about 23 percent.

And even with an estimated 3.5 percent uptick in ticket prices -- to an average of $5.85 -- the number of tickets actually sold in America has risen somewhere between 15 and 16 percent.

Attendance at the nation's cinemas was a hair under 1.5 billion last year, so if the trend continues to year's end there should be about 240,000 additional tickets sold in 2002.

But many in the industry point to coming potential blockbusters -- movies like ''Men in Black 2,'' ''Austin Powers in Goldmember,'' ''Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,'' ''The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers'' and ''Die Another Day,'' the latest James Bond adventure -- to predict that attendance in 2002 may actually exceed 1.75 billion.

Those attendance levels are still far lower than in the days before television, but they amount to a striking increase from the relatively flat levels of the last three decades.

Last year's record box-office revenues of $8.4 billion -- up 8.4 percent over 2000 -- are almost certain to go over $9 billion this year, Mr. Dergarabedian and Mr. Fithian agree. And some starry-eyed souls in Hollywood are predicting they will exceed $10 billion.

''And we have done it this year without a 'Titanic,' a movie that really dominated the year's box office in 1998,'' Mr. Fithian said. ''This year, the hits have been more spread around and they have appealed to all segments of the audience, from family movies to R-rated.''

Steven Spielberg, who has his own new film, ''Minority Report,'' hitting theaters this weekend, was asked if he had any idea why Americans were embracing movies to such an extent these days.

He mentioned how movies have traditionally done well in hard times, then stopped, thought about it and shrugged. ''I'm not really sure,'' he said.

Mr. Dergarabedian laughed when told about this exchange.

''Well, if Steven Spielberg doesn't know, I'm not even going to try to guess at it,'' he said.

Correction: July 1, 2002, Monday An article in Business Day on June 21 about a surge in movie box-office revenue this year misstated the trend in sales of videocassettes and DVD's in 2002. They have increased considerably, not decreased, though rentals, which are easier to track, have indeed declined about 2 percent. The article also misidentified a trade publication cited. It is Video Business, not Video News.

  21/06/2002. The New York Times.