One bumbling mall cop, a vengeful father, a cranky old racist, a group of struggling romantics, and an ax-wielding psychopath. It's not your typical band of superheroes, but in the first seven weeks of 2009, this motley crew has helped Hollywood's box office go boom while just about everything else has busted apart. Last weekend, a reboot of the classic slasher film Friday the 13th became the latest in a string of films to debut strongly, scaring up an impressive $43.6 million and pushing year-to-year box office results up more than 22 percent. Seems watching Jason Voorhees chase young lovers in the woods is good for a scare plus, it's a lot less frightening than waiting to see if the bank will foreclose on your home. ''The American consumer became aware of how deep the economic troubles were back in October,'' says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. ''Since then, our business has been robust week after week.''
Despite all the good news at the movie theaters, Hollywood isn't entirely immune to the economic ennui. Numerous jobs have been cut, advertising revenues are sagging, and growth for the once indestructible DVD business is slowing dramatically. (Netflix, on the other hand, beat Wall Street estimates with its most recent quarterly earnings.) Strong box office returns can't fix everything, but for now they do seem to be alleviating some of the pain. ''Getting off to a good start is not a bad thing,'' says Sony vice chairman Jeff Blake. ''I've got a feeling I'm going to walk into Walmart and feel pretty good with what's going on with the Mall Cop DVD shelf.''
The heretofore untapped Kevin James oeuvre who knew?! isn't the only winner. Audiences have watched Liam Neeson kick butt in the surprise hit Taken ($80.5 million), fallen for the romantic ensemble comedy He's Just Not That Into You ($57.8 million), and turned Oscar shutout Gran Torino ($129.6 million) into the biggest hit of Clint Eastwood's career. Indeed, by offering moviegoers such a broad slate during the usually junky early-winter period, Hollywood has convinced them that the best value for their dwindling discretionary funds is still a plain ol' movie ticket. (Of course, a trip to the concession stand easily puts that theory to the test.) ''We're still recession-proof as long as people want to see the movie,'' says Bruce Snyder, Twentieth Century Fox's president of distribution, who saw Taken actually rise by 6 percent in its third week to $21.8 million. ''That's what we were hoping to open to.''
Not every newcomer is resonating: The International and Confessions of a Shopaholic have been met with indifference. But then, a thriller about evil bankers and a comedy about a labelista don't really strike the right chord these days. ''The International certainly didn't perform the way we wanted it to,'' says Blake. ''Maybe it was too real.'' Adds New Line president Toby Emmerich: ''A movie that deals with juggling credit-card debt is not escapism right now.''
Despite those misses, Hollywood is optimistic about the months ahead. With big-ticket comedies like I Love You, Man, the 3-D romp Monsters vs. Aliens, and a little band-of-anti-superheroes movie called Watchmen on deck for March, the box office should continue to be one industry that doesn't need a stimulus package.
HOW OTHER INDUSTRIES ARE FARING
CBS is the only network to see an increase in viewers this season. So far, even a sure bet like Fox's House has shed 30 percent from last year.
Despite strong showings by the likes of Coldplay, the signs aren't boding well for an industry whose album sales have fallen 12 percent from last year.*
On the strength of titles like Nintendo's Wii Fit, the videogame industry was a bright spot, with the American market growing 17 percent from last year.
*Source: Nielsen Soundscan