The U.S. economy may be recessing toward a depression, but Hollywood has found a bull market in B movies or A-budget repackagings of the old schlock. With three 2009 releases already earning more than $100 million at the domestic box office, and Americans buying 10% more tickets than in early 2008, DreamWorks' retro-'50s sci-fi comedy Monsters vs Aliens took in an estimated $58.2 million this weekend to keep the wickets clattering. The recipe of a 49-ft.11-1.2in. woman and a bunch of lovable-oaf sidekicks, plus the heavily promoted lure of 3D thrills and giggles, was just the mix to lure audiences into movie theaters where they've pretty much been camping out all year.
A misfit-superheroes movie with a feel-good vibe, Monsters benefited from a saturation marketing campaign including a 3D Super Bowl spot that must have wiped out most of the opening week's profit. The newest DreamWorks cartoon also didn't quite match the $60.2 million opening weekend gross of either of the studio's 2008 entries, Kung Fu Panda (last year's) and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa ($63,1 million). And because of the higher price charged for the 3D showings on about 2,000 screens, there were significantly fewer tickets sold. But Monsters is guaranteed to join the other members of the 2009 box office elite: Paul Blart: Mall Cop ($142.4 million), Taken ($137.1 million) and Watchmen ($103.3 million). (See TIME's photo tribute to Natasha Richardson)
Just as impressive, in its way, was the $23 million that Lionsgate's The Haunting in Connecticut cadged to take the weekend's No. 2 slot. You might guess from the title that this is a revenge melodrama about the TP-ing of Sen. Chris Dodd's home by constituents enraged over his role in helping the AIG sharks get their bonuses. In fact, it's a no-budget movie shot in Winnipeg, the movie capital of Manitoba, in late 2007 that must be about the 173rd informal remake of The Amityville Horror. Apparently, old-dark-house terrors just never grow old. Lionsgate, Hollywood's only real indie studio (until Carl Icahn gets his paws on it), may have another franchise to compliment its Saw series.
The next three films on the list all made their debut last week, and finished in the same order: the Nicolas Cage enigma Knowing, the Paul Rudd bromance comedy I Love You, Man and Julia Roberts' comeback caper Duplicity. Considering the favorable reviews and warm word-of-mouth, Duplicity might have expected to do a little better its second weekend. But for its target audience of the movie elderly (i.e., over 25), such raves may mean only that the movie will be worth renting when it comes out on Netflix if only they can remember that long.
Here are the numbers for the weekend's top 10, as reported by Box Office Mojo:
1. Monsters vs Aliens, $58.2 million, first weekend
2. The Haunting of Connecticut, $23 million, first weekend
3. Knowing, 14.7 million; $46.2 million in 10 days
4. I Love You, Man, $12.6 million; $35.6 million in 10 days
5. Duplicity, $7.6 million; $25.6 million in 10 days
6. Race to Witch Mountain, $5.6 million; $53.3 million in 17 days
7. 12 Rounds, $5.3 million, first weekend
8. Watchmen, $2.8 million; $103.3 million in 24 days
9. Taken, $2.7 million; $137.1 million in 59 days
10. The Last House On The Left, $2.6 million; $28.5 million in 17 days
[A note to readers wondering how studios can announce their grosses on Sunday afternoon, when the full weekend take isn't known: they have business models that give them an educated guess, which is what the industry runs on anyway. The final statistics are announced Monday, or Tuesday if Monday is a vacation day.]
Let's Have Another Depression!
No question that Hollywood is producing the cheery or cheesy stuff that audiences will pay for in tough times. "Recession meets escapism equals box office," says Media by Numbers box-office analyst, Paul Dergarabedian, who, aside from boasting perhaps the industry's only six-syllable surname, is the fellow the Hollywood press goes to for snappy summaries of the weekend movie take.
He has another one: "Going to the movies is the new vacation," meaning that a night at the multiplex is the cheap surrogate for a trip to Walt Disney World (which is also doing pretty well, based on the dense crowds at the park when we were there a week ago). Dergarabedian points out that in five of the past seven recessions, U.S. movie theaters have drawn bigger audiences. If we're really lucky, he suggests, the economy will tumble into a full-bore depression, and Hollywood will enjoy another Golden Age.
"This is exactly what happened after the collapse of 1929 and 1930," Dergaraberian said. "Escapist movies were really paying off, and they were running theaters around the clock. Seventy million people a week were going to the movies."
Moviegoing may have flourished in the early years of the Depression, but the finances of most movie studios were no more robust than General Motors or Circuit City is today. According to The Hollywood Story, Joel W. Finler's very reliable history of the movie business, Fox lost $20 million in 1931-32 and had to merge with 20th Century Pictures. In 1932, Paramount took a $20 million bath in red ink and was declared bankrupt. The same year, RKO, $10 million in arrears, went into receivership. Universal lost money nearly every year of the '30s. Warner Bros. suffered more than $30 million in deficits in four of its Depression years. Only MGM, with its nonpareil star roster, and Columbia, a small outfit making inexpensive films, stayed in the black. Not many bosses were singing, "We're in the money!"
Fans of classic movies rightly cherish the lavish musicals, spiffy comedies and grimy pre-Code dramas of the early '30s. Generally, though, for the studios of the early Depression, Hollywood was Hooverville. It's not a time that today's moguls are eager to revisit.
This column is the first of a weekly TIME.com series on box office grosses.