Hollywood Sign

Hollywood is off to a staggering, record-breaking start in 2009 led by Clint Eastwood’s most successful wide opening ever, a French action import and a chubby guy on a Segway. Hot on the heels of the biggest January in history with over $1 billion in domestic sales, February has exceeded $750M in the US. The industry’s all-time best January followed by the all-time biggest February on the books puts total domestic box office for the year at almost $1.8 billion.

“Everything is working.” That’s what one studio exec told me today. “With the exception of the Jonas Brothers, it seems like almost every release is out-performing expectations.” January 2009 has gone down as the all-time 8th-best month in modern box office history. It started with excellent holiday holdovers. Six movies, technically released in 2008, did major chunks of their business after New Year’s.

2008 RELEASES WITH MORE THAN $50M IN 2009 TICKET SALES
1. Gran Torino (Warner Bros) – $132.7M
2. Slumdog Millionaire (Fox Searchlight) – $92.8M
3. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Paramount) – $72.7M
4. Marley & Me (Fox) – $69.5M
5. Bedtime Stories (Disney) – $52.75M

Then there was the surprise phenomenon of Paul Blart: Mall Cop (Sony), a low budget comedy from producer Adam Sandler and starring former King of Queens star Kevin James. The movie opened to over $30M on the weekend of January 16, and it is now closing in on $130M. The other $100M hit so far in 2009 is Taken (Fox), the Luc Besson-produced French import, which delivered excellent grosses in Europe before landing in the US. With a star turn by Liam Neeson, Taken had already delivered $11.2M in the UK, $9.4M in France and $5.5M in Spain before it went wide in the US on January 30. The picture has held up extraordinarily well with $108M domestic to-date.

The movie industry is 14% ahead of last year’s January-February take of $1.5 billion and a full 23% stronger than the first two months of 2007, which posted just over $1.35 billion. It’s fair to start speculating about the possibility that 2009 will be Hollywood’s all-time box office high water mark.

March has a definite shot at topping $800M, which would be a third straight monthly record. Watchmen (Warner Bros) looks huge starting Friday (I’ll post a prediction later in the week), Last House on the Left (Universal) appears to be a solid genre pic on Friday the thirteenth along with Disney’s excellent family offering Race to Witch Mountain. On March 20, Duplicity (Universal) starring Julia Roberts and Clive Owen has 25+ appeal and Dreamworks/Paramount is sky-high about I Love You Man. And the month rounds out with Monsters vs. Aliens from Dreamworks Animation.

Back-to-back-to-back all-time monthly records and almost $2.6 billion in the bank by March 31 would be further proof that the movie business is recession proof. In fact, the more dreary the economic news becomes, the more Americans seek refuge at movies. Instead of the annual trip to Disney World or a getaway cruise in the Bahamas, people seem to be spending their pocket change at America’s multiplexes in droves.

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