In a year when terrorism threatened and travel seemed risky, when the economy faltered and the stock market stayed on life support, here's what Americans did: They went to the movies.
Americans always, it seems, go to the movies. In good times, in bad times -- every year it seems like a record of some sort is forged at the box office. And it is; every year for the past decade, the box office total has shattered the record established the previous year -- though sometimes the dollar total was up because of higher ticket prices.
But last year was something different. Last year Americans went to the movies, and went again, and then went some more. In 2002 the estimated box office total rose by more than 12 percent, pushing the American moviegoing budget to $9.37 billion, according to Exhibitor Relations. That's an increase of $1 billion. Meanwhile movie ticket prices rose a relatively modest 3.5 percent.
The previous year, the box office was up an impressive 8 percent, the biggest jump in four years. That was flush enough in the year when Sept. 11 kept Americans rooted to their television sets for a time, and left them nervous about hanging out in public places.
But even experts in the entertainment business did not expect a leap as large as 2002's. "It's huge, it really is," said Tom Sherak, an executive at Revolution Studios and a veteran of the movie business. "Some years there aren't movies for everybody; it seems like there were movies for everybody this year."
What he meant is there were movies for every demographic, every moviegoing "quadrant." There were highly promoted blockbusters -- "Star Wars: Episode II -- Attack of the Clones," "The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." There were hunk-driven action movies -- Vin Diesel in "XXX" -- and romantic chick flicks -- starting with "Sweet Home Alabama." There were sleeper hits set in ethnic neighborhoods that turned out to have almost universal appeal. No fewer than 22 films broke the $100 million mark at the box office.
The number of people going to the multiplex rose by 8 percent in 2002, more than double the increase of the previous year, which had reversed a decline in movie attendance from the year before. This reflects another trend: long-neglected baby boomers are becoming a growing part of the movie audience. The proportion of 50-to-59-year-olds in the moviegoing audience has been rising steadily over the past few years, though it remains far below the proportion of young men, cinema's core audience.
What can account for such rosy figures in Tinseltown? Few seem to think it's about the quality or even the quantity of the movies, which range from high-concept tales to franchise-driven sequels to technically whiz-bang epics. That was true last year and the year before that and the year before that.
Instead some industry experts point to the growing status of movies in pop culture. They represent mass migrations in which everyone wants to participate. The promotion inundation of the media landscape ahead of films like "Spider-Man" and "The Lord of the Rings" sends huge numbers of fans to the multiplex on opening weekends.
"What's happening in the last few years is that movies are becoming more of an event, rather than just something you go and pay to see for two hours," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of Reel Source, which tracks the box office and polls moviegoers. "The online ticketing, the buzz on the Internet surrounding openings is creating a phenomenon so that people feel they have to go on opening night. It's almost like it used to be on Broadway when a show opened; we didn't have this in the past."
One indication of that is the increasing number of tickets sold online in advance of an opening weekend. One new online sales company, Fandango.com, sold 6 percent of the opening weekend's tickets to "The Two Towers."
Typically after opening weekend, revenue for these "event" films has declined precipitously. In 2002, several sleeper hits bucked that trend, staying in theaters for weeks or months, among them the comedy "Barbershop," the anti-gun documentary "Bowling for Columbine," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and now the latest, "Drumline," a small film about marching bands that is expected to barrel past $50 million at the box office.
Others in Hollywood seem convinced that the moribund economy and enduring jitters over terrorism also drove Americans into darkened halls where escapist fantasies are served up in THX sound.
"When times are not great, movies seem to do better because people are looking to escape," said Sherak. "Right now the economy is not great, there's the threat of war, there are problems with terrorism -- people need to get out and enjoy themselves. Movies are still the cheapest form of entertainment for a family."
Noted Bucksbaum: "Movie studios are doing it right; they are giving the public what they want to see. They're not trying to be creative and tiptoe around; they're force-feeding the public the same reinvented themes over and over -- it's either Cinderella, like 'Greek Wedding,' or the popcorn, testosterone movies for the young adults -- and you can't blame them, because that's what people want to see. People want to lose themselves in a movie for two hours. It's easy to check your brain at the door and be happy."
Of course, for all the box office hits, there were plenty of pricey duds in 2002, most notoriously "Treasure Planet," which cost some $140 million and has taken in only $32 million, and the epic period bomb "The Four Feathers," which cost $80 million and has returned $18 million domestically. Even Sony -- which had one of the most successful years of any studio in recent history -- miscalculated with the expensive sequel "Stuart Little II," which took in a disappointing $64 million in the United States. Miramax's sweeping epic "Gangs of New York" -- conservatively estimated to have cost $120 million -- has so far taken in $37 million.
Still, the overall success of last year's slate in Hollywood means that moviegoers can expect more of the same this year. Another "Lord of the Rings" is coming, as is not one but two "Matrix" sequels. Given the 2002 box office figures, as Bucksbaum put it, "if you've seen it before, you'll see it again."