Times may be tough in the real world, but not in Hollywood.
As it usually does during economic downturns, the movie business has come on strong, expected to set a summer revenue record of about $4.2 billion from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, according to box-office tracker Media By Numbers.
That would put Hollywood a fraction ahead of the previous record of $4.18 billion in summer 2007, though accounting for inflation, the actual number of tickets sold – about 587 million – is down 3.5 percent.
It’s almost a tradition dating back to the Depression: When the economy goes sour, the escapism and relative cheapness of a night at the movies is an attractive prospect for audiences.
The behemoth of summer was the Warner Bros. Batman sequel “The Dark Knight,” whose haul – $500 million and counting – amounted to nearly one-eighth of overall Hollywood revenues.
“The Dark Knight” passed “Star Wars” to rank No. 2 on the all-time domestic revenue chart, behind only “Titanic” at $600.8 million.
“We would not be looking at a $4 billion summer if not for ‘The Dark Knight,’ ” said Paul Dergarabedian, Media By Numbers president.
Batman mania already was high as production wrapped last fall, but it grew to a fever after Heath Ledger, who co-stars as the Joker, died in January.
“The Dark Knight” and four other superhero tales – “Hancock,” Paramount’s “Iron Man,” and Universal’s “The Incredible Hulk” and “Hellboy II: The Golden Army” – rang up $1.25 billion, 30 percent of the summer box office.
Add in the $315 million take for Paramount’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” and it’s clear that audiences were looking for pure adventure.
The animated tales “WALL-E” from Disney and “Kung Fu Panda” from DreamWorks both topped $200 million, as did Will Smith’s “Hancock.”
There was a healthy dose of chick flicks during the male-dominated summer with Warner’s “Sex and the City” and Universal’s “Mamma Mia!” – both $100 million hits.
Raunchy comedy also packed in crowds with the R-rated hits “Tropic Thunder” from Paramount and “Step Brothers” and “Pineapple Express,” both from Sony.
Some major flops accompanied the successes. Eddie Murphy bombed with his sci-fi comedy “Meet Dave” from 20th Century Fox, as did Mike Myers with Paramount’s comedy “The Love Guru.”
Warner’s family-action tale “Speed Racer” and 20th Century Fox’s sci-fi sequel “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” also crashed and burned.