Commentary: Even in recession, Hollywood gives thanks

Holiday cinema stuffed with something for everyone

Thanksgiving time: We may be in the midst of a global financial meltdown, but you'd never know it from the way the boxoffice is booming.

Last weekend's $69.6 million domestic launch for Summit Entertainment's teen vampire romance "Twilight," combined with "Quantum of Solace's" $26.7 million second weekend and "Bolt's" $26.2 million opening, helped boost ticket sales 57% compared with last year's pre-Thanksgiving weekend. That, by the way, is the best comparison with 2007 because Thanksgiving fell a week earlier last year.

As a result, comparisons to this past weekend on last year's calendar are like apples and oranges in that it's this year's pre-Thanksgiving weekend versus three days of last year's five-day Thanksgiving weekend. Understandably, those comparisons only show business up less than 1% last weekend. Key films last weekend -- those grossing $500,000 or more -- earned a combined $159 million. Last year's pre-Thanksgiving weekend (Nov. 16-18, 2007) saw comparable ticket sales of only $101 million, with "Beowulf's" $27.5 million opening leading the pack.

The sizzling debut for "Twilight," which has sparked a valuable franchise for the new but very promising Summit Entertainment, the success of Sony and MGM's all-action James Bond adventure "Quantum," with $108.8 million already under its belt after 10 days, and the encouraging kickoff for Disney's animated "Bolt" should contribute to a well-stuffed five-day Thanksgiving-weekend boxoffice.

Those three prime holdovers will be joined Wednesday by three new arrivals
targeted to diverse audiences. Warner Bros. is banking on its seasonal romantic comedy from New Line Cinema, "Four Christmases," directed by Seth Gordon and starring Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon. Lionsgate is counting on its action-franchise episode "Transporter 3," directed by Olivier Megaton and starring Jason Statham and Natalya Rudakova. And Fox has high hopes for its period-epic romantic drama "Australia," directed by Baz Luhrmann and starring Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. All three newcomers are rated PG-13, so they're highly accessible to moviegoers.

Besides business for the new arrivals, the extended holiday weekend should see plenty of repeat viewing for "Twilight," which had the fourth-biggest November opening to date, according to Paul Dergarabedian's Media by Numbers. Research by found that as of Sunday morning, 63% of "Twilight's" audience, which is more than 75% female, was planning to see it again. That should bolster the film's second weekend in theaters substantially.

There also should be some finally-catching-up-with ticket sales for "Quantum," which in typical Bond fashion has been doing way better internationally than domestically. As of Sunday, "Quantum" had grossed about $418 million worldwide -- with $309 million from international ticket sales -- and it's still early in its run. The previous Bond episode, "Casino Royale," wound up with $167.4 million domestically and $426.8 million internationally after its 2006 release.

"Bolt" stands to do particularly well during the holiday weekend because its good-but-not-overwhelming opening probably reflected a decision by many families to save it so they'd have something to take the kids to see during the long, sometimes hard-to-figure-out-what-to-do-with Thanksgiving weekend. In effect, last weekend's "Bolt" opening was like holding sneak previews, but Disney got to keep the money. Typically, a film preempted by a preview gets the sneak's revenue.

Aside from the three wide releases arriving for Thanksgiving, there's also the limited release of Focus Features' biographical drama "Milk," directed by Gus Van Sant and starring Sean Penn as San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the U.S. There's strong Oscar buzz for the R-rated "Milk" and for Penn's performance, and that should help drive the movie as it begins its run before expanding next month.

All told, the holiday frame is shaping up as a something-for-everyone weekend. Adult women looking for a love story can drag their husbands and boyfriends to "Australia." The film's action story line has Kidman and Jackman driving 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of rough Australian countryside and facing Japan's World War II bombing of Darwin, all of which should satisfy action-loving guys.

Young-adult women and older female teens can opt for "Christmases," which has a cute holiday theme about a happily unmarried San Francisco couple who find themselves fogged in Christmas morning and unable to leave for their holiday travels. Instead, they're suddenly spending a different type of family Christmas with their parents, stepparents, nieces and nephews.

Male action fans already know all about the "Transporter" franchise, and given the success of the first two episodes, there's every reason to expect the third to perform well. It can only help that the new episode's heavier on action than the first two. If you missed my recent column with director Olivier Megaton about the making of the film, you can read it by clicking here.

With such diverse product playing this Thanksgiving, ticket sales should be brisk. This is despite turmoil in the credit markets, fast-evaporating 401(k) plans, the roller-coaster stock market, endless bank bailouts and the wretched recession that has us in its grip. Hollywood managed to get through the Depression very well, but the early 1930s was a different period in American history. In-home entertainment in those days was limited to radio and records. To see movies meant going to a theater, and people were willing to pay the price to manage a few hours of escape from those troubled times.

A big difference between then and now is that major studios during the '30s were in the business of making movies and running theaters. They weren't part of diversified media companies owned by global giants, as they are today. As a result, today's studios are vulnerable mega-giants with network television and cable holdings driven by advertising sales, which suffer badly in a recessionary economy. On their own, the studios look much healthier than do their corporate parents.

Looking back at more recent recessions, I found a column I wrote that ran Dec. 4, 1991, and focused on how well Hollywood had held up over Thanksgiving that year, even though there was plenty of financial doom and gloom. It's interesting to look back 17 years later and see how and what the film industry was doing then.

After analyzing the good Thanksgiving '91 numbers, I wrote: "Coming as it does in the grip of a deep recession, this is encouraging news for Hollywood. It's worth remembering that media doomsayers have long been predicting that this very same mother of all recessions would be sending people to video stores and keeping them out of theaters.

"At this point, there's no question that the public has demonstrated its continuing enthusiasm for moviegoing. The message that the public has been sending Hollywood all year has been, essentially: 'Give us movies we really want to see, and we'll dig down deep in our pockets to buy those high-priced tickets and overpriced concession-stand items. On the other hand, give us films we aren't eager to see, and we'll be very happy to wait a few months and rent them for $1 a night in home video.'"

Has anything changed in 17 years? Hollywood is still going strong. People are still buying tickets to films they really want to see, despite the tough times. And Hollywood has survived the competition it faced from home video back in '91, as well as the competition it has faced during recent years from DVD. People still want to see certain types of movies on a big screen, in the dark, surrounded by lots of other people (but preferably not those talking on their cell phones throughout the film or crinkling candy wrappers nonstop).

One change for the better these days is that Hollywood tends to try not to have films targeted to the same core audience competing early in their runs. In 1991, that wasn't always the case. In my column then, I observed, "It's worth noting that since the top three films on the Thanksgiving charts were family films -- 'The Addams Family' is rated PG-13, 'My Girl' is PG, and 'Beauty and the Beast' is G -- many of their admissions were at reduced prices for children.

"The fact that there were three very strong releases in the marketplace that were suitable for family audiences worked to the disadvantage of several weaker family films. (The) animated sequel 'An American Tail: Fievel Goes West' didn't go anywhere. ... (The) low-budget quickie 'All I Want for Christmas' was left wanting for business. The family hits also hurt 'For the Boys,' a film with potential appeal to adult females.

"With so many films playing that youngsters wanted to see, adult females may have been less accessible than usual because they were busy seeing 'Addams,' 'Girl' and 'Beauty' with their kids."

Well, that overstuffing of new family-appeal product isn't a problem this Thanksgiving. With so much diverse product in today's marketplace, distributors should carve up a hearty boxoffice pie.

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