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Movie Studios Celebrate Another Record Year at US Theaters - 2002-12-29

The movie studios are celebrating another record year at North American movie theaters. The total box office gross for 2002 is a bit more than $8.75 billion. The number of paid admissions or tickets sold, almost 1.5 billion, is the highest since 1959. Industry insiders take a look back at Hollywood in 2002 and what can be expected in the year to come.

"Who are you?"
"Who am I? I'm Spider-Man."

The super-hero who's been a comic book favorite since the 1960s made it to the big screen in a big way. With domestic ticket sales of almost $404 million and another $414 million from international audiences, Spider-Man swings high as the top moneymaker of 2002. Of course that kind of success means a sequel is inevitable; and co-star Kirsten Dunst says that was made clear when she took on the role of Spidey's girlfriend Mary Jane.

"Three films, you're signed up, baby," she said. "If you don't like your role, you shouldn't be signing up. This is going ot be my role for awhile now."

There were sequels and pre-quels this past year; Attack of the Clones (officially episode two of Star Wars, but actually the fifth film since the first Star Wars in 1977) comes in second on the year-end box office chart.

There was also Harry Potter II, Lord of the Rings II, even "Men In Black II. While not all the sequels were hits - for instance, Analyze That flopped, despite the success of the original Analyze This. Robert Dowling, editor in chief of the trade paper The Hollywood Reporter, predicts the studios will continue to churn out big budget epics.

"Out here they're referred to as 'event pictures' and they are events because they are expensive," he said. "They will all be well over $100 million to make; they'll probably be $75 million or more to market. And that's the point: it's a major, massive consumer product rollout. The danger, of course, is that it may not work and if it doesn't there's a lot of money lost."

The big story of the year is a little film that every studio rejected, but audiences - when they finally got to see it - embraced.

"You'd better get married soon. You're starting to look old."
"My dad has been saying that to me since I was 15."

My Big Fat Greek Wedding cost only five million dollars to make (compare that with the $130 million production budget of Spider-Man); but Greek Wedding, which opened back in April at only 108 theaters has steadily grown to gross more than $217 million. Star and writer Nia Vardalos says they really could not afford advertising at first, so its success is a tribute to word of mouth.

"The people who went to those first 108 theaters took it under their wing," she said. "They just took this film under their wings and they went home and told their 10 friends...or, if they were Greek, their first 10 cousins."

Studio executives all over Hollywood are trying to figure out how to copy the success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but Walter Parkes of DreamWorks admits that it is almost impossible to invent word of mouth, especially for the big budget features which, he says, require advertising.

"Nothing is more meaningful than another human being telling you at the grocery store or the office, 'I saw a picture and I really liked it,'" he said "I think we're getting to a point where the audience is starting to mistrust the barrage of information that we at studios have to throw at them to get their attention. We're in a bit of a [dilemma] right now. Every now and then you can buid a small movie from the ground up; unfortunately, when you have a $75 or $100 million investment in a movie, you don't really have to approach it that way. When you're releasing a big event movie you need to get out there and make your statement the first weekend."

Of course, word of mouth can also work against a movie and it did just that this year for pop music divas Britney Spears and Madonna, each of whom had films that failed.

On the other hand, rap music star Eminem scored a hit with his first movie, the semi-autobiographical Eight Mile.

At year's end, critical acclaim for the long-awaited screen version of the stage hit Chicago gave new hope for revival of the musical film genre.

The year began with Hollywood history. For the first time, the Oscars for best actor and best actress went to black performers: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.

"I know it didn't change the industry overnight," said Halle Berry. "That's certainly not what I meant when I was standing up there - that this would change the world. I know that it didn't do that; but it did change the way that people of color view themselves within the industry. I think they're more hopeful now because it's finally obtainable. Denzel also won that night, so it's tangible now and I think they know that what they're dreaming of is possible if they work hard."

But some of the most talked about performances were by characters who really don't exist: computer generated images such as the frighteningly realistic Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In fact, the Broadcast Film Critics Association even created a new category of "Best Digital Performance" for its annual Critics Choice awards. Editor in chief of The Hollywood Reporter Robert Dowling predicts the entertainment industry will be even more digitized in 2003.

"The key word driving it all is the technology," he said. "The theater owners are saying 'I've go to add more elements to get people to come in and maybe I can use digital technology to offer other things in my auditorium.' The film companies are saying 'should we distribute our product over the internet becuase there are more people out there?' Look what happened to the DVD this year: the fastest consumer product acceptance out there and those things are flying off the shelves in terms of people buying films. The next step could be digital distribution of that. You have electronic games, which is a whole new industry which is bigger than the film business."

Part of VOA's yearend series