Santa came just in time for Hollywood this year, delivering the biggest box office ever for the four-day holiday weekend — up, by some measures, 9 percent from last year.
The weekend boasted an unusually large number of wide releases for the season, many of which featured big stars. "Marley and Me" from News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox topped the list, bringing in over $50 million over the four day period. Another feel-good family film, Disney's "Bedtime Stories" starring Adam Sandler, brought in nearly $40 million.
And even darker, heavier Oscar bait delivered audiences. Paramount's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" also brought in nearly $40 million. Highly-anticipated "Valkyrie," starring Tom Cruise, from his relatively new United Artists studio and MGM, did almost $30 million.
This weekend's film options were plentiful and diverse, perfect for families who opted not to go away on vacation, looking to get out of the house. Remarkably, there wasn't a single sequel in the top ten films this past weekend, showing that moviegoers don't need the reassurance of a number after a movie title to convince them to pay for a ticket. This puts the total box office gross for 2008 at about $9.55 billion, just a hair below last year, while the number of tickets sold so far this year is down 4 percent from 2007. (The difference, of course, from ticket prices.)
Next year will look pretty different. Yes, we'll have plenty of sequels and franchises, including some like "Star Trek." But we won't see such a crowded schedule. Film financing is taking a hit, so a lot of the independent films backed by Wall Street will simply disappear, and the studios, looking at tighter credit, are trimming their schedules.
Studios will focus their efforts and funds on their sure things, which means big action and special-effects driven blockbusters will continue to take center stage. The films that are likely to fall by the wayside? The pricier dramas that people can just as well see as home. I wouldn't be surprised if we see more straight-to-DVD and VOD (video on demand) as studios try to curtail their spending. I suspect that Americans will continue to flock to theaters to escape the drab reality of the recession, but it seems they'll be spending less on popcorn and soda.
Billionaire Mark Cuban is bullish on theaters — Monday reporting a 9.4 percent stake in Carmike Cinemas . An SEC filing reveals that Cuban spent about $2.8 million on 1.2 million shares. Cuban already is co-owner of the Landmark Theater chain that specializes in artier fare, so here he's looking to branch out. In 2009, theaters are going to be counting on volume; they won't be able to do their usual ticket and concession price increases in this economy.
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