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Summer Movies Out To Be Recession Proof Again

Iron Man
Iron Man

"Iron Man" from Marvel and Paramount opens today, kicking off the summer movie season. With the box office expected to top $85 million opening weekend, Hollywood's pretty excited, and for good reason.

The economic downturn is squeezing consumer spending, but there's one corner of the consumer pocketbook that'll emerge unscathed from the "r" word. Moviegoing is pretty much recession proof: box office receipts have grown over six of the last seven recessions. (According to Lehman Bros. analyst Eric Handler.)

It's fairly simple. When the economy is suffering, people want to escape their troubles, and going to the movies is a fairly affordable luxury. Even with the average movie ticket price at eight dollars, a trip to an air-conditioned theater is a great activity when you're not spending money on road trips. And movies are probably the cheapest out-of-home entertainment, with concerts and sporting events pricier than ever.

But Hollywood faces some tough comparisons. Last summer had the biggest U.S. box office EVER, with 15 sequels and huge franchises like "Spiderman," "Pirates of the Caribbean," and "Shrek," bringing out bigger audiences than ever.

It'll be incredibly tough for this summer's box office to live up to those numbers, especially since there are only seven sequels opening this summer. Sure, some of them are likely to be huge, like "Indiana Jones." But the bottom line is, fewer sequels means the box office is much less predictable.

And the movie studios are under pressure to establish new franchises. Disney has "Wall-E," DreamWorks animation has "Kung Fu Panda," Warner Bros. has "Speed Racer." The list goes on and on.

There are plenty of franchise potentials. And the fact that people are going on fewer road trips may actually get more people into theaters, helping out this summer's box office. But at the end of the day, the movies have to be good.

A lot of eyes will be on the box office numbers. You can bet that Marvel is going to turn "Iron Man" into a franchise if it hits that $85 million dollar figure this weekend.

Questions? Comments? MediaMoney@cnbc.com

  • Working from Los Angeles, Boorstin is CNBC's media and entertainment reporter and editor of CNBC.com's Media Money section.