Commentary: Ringing out '08 with high hopes for '09

Paul Dergarabedian sees Hollywood looking good

Dergarabedian discussion: As we ring in the New Year, it's the ideal time to look back at how Hollywood fared in 2008 and consider what lies ahead in '09.

To take that backwards and forwards journey, I was happy to be able to turn to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Media by Numbers and for years the film industry's most widely quoted boxoffice analyst.

To begin with, the year gone by was a good one for Dergarabedian. "It was a terrific year," he observed. "Media by Numbers was sold to We closed the deal Oct. 6 and it's just been a (great) synergistic collaboration between the two companies."

As for his widespread media presence with a quotable point of view about every weekend's results, Dergarabedian explained, "My thing is I'm totally available. For the press corps it just makes their life so much easier when they have someone who can comment on the trends and do analysis on the industry on the fly (that's) up to date and relevant and all that and be accessible and available to them."

Looking back now on all those weekends of comments, Dergarabedian sees Hollywood as having done very well and credits the wide range of product available to audiences as having made a big difference in 2008. "I think what was emblematic of the year was that it (featured) a totally diverse lineup of films," he noted.

He agrees that the movie business is product driven: "People keep talking about the movie industry being recession proof, but I think it's more about the product. There are people who say, 'Why are people going to the movies so much? They don't have the money to go.' But they're going because they need that escape."

Moreover, he added, in 2005 although "people had more money in their pockets, we had an 18 week slump that had nothing to do with the fact that people did or didn't have money. It was that the films were not as appealing. The word of mouth wasn't there and even with all the marketing it didn't matter. You couldn't drag people into theaters in '05. It's always product driven. That's why when there's a war or a national disaster it doesn't seem to have that big an effect at the boxoffice."

Of course, one of the challenges Hollywood faces is that it must determine a few years in advance what people are going to be in the mood to see. "That's what makes it such an amazing business," he noted, "but also one that's very elusive in terms of its successes. You can have a property that seems hot right now when it's in the early green light stages and by the time that film hits theaters it might be totally irrelevant to audiences. People underestimate what a tremendously difficult job it is to program the release schedule and choose projects that are going to succeed. You know, 'Snakes on a Plane' -- on paper people (thought), 'Wow, it's going to be huge,' but it just didn't translate. It didn't work. But who could have known?"

Along those lines, Hollywood made a number of films about the war in Iraq, but none of them have worked. "That may be the single worst subject matter to make a movie about, at least, in '06, '07 and '08 because none of those films performed to the level that was expected," he pointed out.

Do we know why? "I think people, especially now, want to see fun and escape reflected on the big screen," Dergarabedian answered, "and not misery or downbeat subjects. If there's anything that defines the year '08 it is that it was the year of the escapist movie. Those Iraq war films just represented the polar opposite of escapism to the audience and the boxoffice results speak for themselves."

At this point, of course, we're in the middle of the awards season and are surrounded by bleak depressing movies. "If a movie is touted strongly enough as being a terrific film, it can sometimes transcend its status as a downer movie or a bummer, whatever you want to call it, or a non-escapist movie or a more challenging film. A film like 'The Wrestler' is somewhat of a difficult fit in terms of sitting there for the duration of the movie, but it's such an exhilarating experience because of that performance by Mickey Rourke and the supporting cast that it transcends that. It's ironic that right now when the more challenging movies come out, this year has shown that people don't want that. They want 'Quantum of Solace.' They want 'Beverly Hills Chihuahua.' They want 'Four Christmases.' They want 'Twilight.' But they don't want a movie that's downbeat."

Reflecting on that, Dergarabedian added, "In fact, a friend of mine told me that (there are) eight films in December this year where the protagonist dies. It's a cornucopia of tough films out there and that's going to reflect in the boxoffice. But, then again, those films are not chasing huge dollars anyway. What they're chasing is critical acclaim and, hopefully, some kind of Oscar and Golden Globe nominations and ultimate wins and (they) could be good films regardless of the boxoffice. That's what I love about what's going on right now. There's some great films out there (like) 'Slumdog Millionaire,' 'The Wrestler.' To me, a film like 'Frost/Nixon,' having the highest per theater opening average of any film released in 2008, tells you that there is an audience that's very interested in introspective and challenging films. It's beautifully made and it's not a downer.

"And 'Benjamin Button,' as well. (It's) a wonderful story (that's) actually pretty heartwarming. It's a nice time to be a moviegoer. The holiday season is a cross (in terms of product) between the summer movie season and Oscar season. You get this cross-section of films from every genre. You can have cinematic fine dining or cinematic fast food. It's really up to you."

When we spoke the year was still winding down, but based on what was known then Dergarabedian observed, "In a year when the economy is down, people are worried about money and a lot of different businesses are really hurting, nonetheless people still keep going to movies."

As for admissions being off a bit, he explained, "Given the level and the intensity of competition from other media, the fact that's let say we wind up 2 or 3% down on attendance in this era of home theater and all these competing technologies and tough economic times, I would say that's a win for the movie industry. It could be a hell of a lot worse. If it was another type of business where there was so much competition you could see the old school manifestation of that technology taking a 10 or 20% hit over the years. Movies just continue to hold their own. It may be a tug-of-war with other technologies, but it's still a viable pastime and it continues to be extraordinarily popular with the audience."

Looking ahead to 2009, Dergarabedian told me, "The more things change, the more they stay the same and it's never more true than with Hollywood and the lineup of films. Next year's going to have a bunch of comedies, sequels, sci-fi and all that good stuff. It should be a pretty good year."

He's bullish, for instance, on the romantic comedies targeted to female moviegoers that will start turning up in theaters early in the New Year -- including Fox's "Bride Wars" (Jan. 9) starring Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway, Warner Bros.' "He's Just Not That Into You" (Feb. 6) starring Ben Affleck, Jennifer Aniston and Drew Barrymore) and Disney's "Confessions of a Shopaholic" (Feb. 13) starring Isla Fisher and Hugh Dancy).

"Programming films for women," he said, "is going to be a smart move now and in the future because we are losing that young male audience. A lot of young males are in front of their gaming consoles and their PlayStations and Xboxes and not going out of the house. Women like to go out. They don't want to be in the house playing a video game. (Moviegoing is) a social event. We heard many stories about girls going out to see 'Twilight' in groups. And you know they were not just going to that movie. They were probably going shopping and getting some food. 'Sex and the City' is a perfect example of the power of the female (audience)."

There's also cause for optimism with so many animated family movies on tap for the New Year. Among the first to arrive will be Paramount's "Hotel for Dogs" (Jan. 16), New Line and Warner Bros.' "Inkheart" (Jan. 23) and Focus Features' "Coraline" (Feb. 6). "You know, there are certain genres that are kind of bulletproof in terms of their appeal," Dergarabedian observed, "and family films are always a staple."

As 2009 plays out we'll see a long list of other animated titles, including DreamWorks and Paramount's "Monsters vs. Aliens" (Mar. 27 in 3D), Disney and Pixar's "Up" (May 29 in 3D), Fox's "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs" (July 1 in 3D), Disney's "G-Force" (July 24 in 3D), Sony's "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs" (Sept. 18 in 3D), Disney and Pixar's reissue of "Toy Story" (Oct. 2 in 3D), Summit Entertainment's "Astro Boy" (Oct. 23), Fox's stop motion animation "The Fantastic Mr. Fox" (Nov. 6), Sony's "Planet 51" (Nov. 20), Fox's adult appeal "Avatar" (Dec. 18 in 3D), Fox's "Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakuel" (Dec. 25) and Disney's "The Princess and the Frog" (Dec. 25).

On the franchise front, Dergarabedian has high hopes for such summer episodes as Fox's "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" (May 1), Paramount's "Star Trek" (May 8), Sony's "Angels & Demons" (May 15), Fox's "Night at the Museum 2: Escape From the Smithsonian" (May 22), Warner Bros.' "Terminator Salvation" (May 22), DreamWorks and Paramount's "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen" (June 26) and Warner Bros.' "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" (July 17).

Space doesn't permit an analysis of everything opening in '09, but he's optimistic in general about much of the product coming our way. "I think 'Watchmen' (Mar. 6 via Warner Bros.) is going to be humongous," he observed. "If it lives up to the promise of that teaser trailer and the excitement surrounding that and the fanboys and girls come out, I think it's going to be a huge movie." And having seen early footage from Paramount's "Star Trek" (May 8), he speculated, "That looks like it could be '09's 'Dark Knight' (mega-blockbuster). It really looks like a huge film to me."

In short, he said, 2009 is bringing "a very strong lineup. And look, we had (May of '07) with three 'threequels' we thought we could never surpass and then the summer of '08 ended up being bigger. So you just never know."

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