First four months paint pretty B.O. picture

2002 already ahead of last year by 15%

HOLLYWOOD — What recession?

That’s the question on the collective lips of studio film prexys throughout Hollywood these days. For even as media congloms’ TV and music divisions continue to struggle against economic and other challenges, 2002 is already clearly en route to being a banner box office year.

So far, the year is 15% ahead of the same portion of 2001, with $2.58 billion in total grosses.

As a head start on summer, “that’s better than good — it’s sensational,” figures Dan Marks, exec veep at box office tracker ACNielsen EDI.

Meantime, a particularly robust offering of summer crowdpleasers looms only weeks away. And even before that official Memorial Day start, Sony’s much-hyped “Spider-Man” was poised to break big over the recent weekend May 3 weekend, with 20th Century Fox’s “Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones” set to blast off May 16.

So far this year, thrillers have been particularly dependable, including first-place openers “Panic Room” and “Changing Lanes.” There’s also been a boffo tooner in Fox’s “Ice Age,” a high-profile military drama in distrib’s “We Were Solders” and actioners including New Line’s successful “Blade II.”

Those releases built upon a solid base of holiday holdovers including New Line’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” and Sony/Revolution’s “Black Hawk Down.”

It should be noted that more than a couple of year-to-date releases have been the object of crix’ brickbats, and several pics have lost money for studios. But what may best explain the year-to-date B.O. improvement is the predominance of broadly targeted movies.

Normally a time of year for more niche-oriented releases, this year’s first half has been marked by mostly commercially minded pics. And at least by that measure, it’s been a winner.

“There are just more pleasing films in the marketplace,” offers Chuck Viane, distrib head at Disney. “The satisfaction level with the movies has been really good.”

Notably, Mouse House’s G-rated Easter pic “The Rookie” managed to avoid potentially pigeonholing as a kidpic. “With ‘The Rookie,’ it didn’t matter if you were a grandparent or an adult or a child,” Viane says. “It played across all those demographics very well.”

Combined with a big bow for Sony’s “Panic Room” thriller, that helped the oft-soft Easter frame blossom into a solid B.O. sesh this year. And that helped March mark an incredible 48% improvement over the same month last year.

“That figure is just mind-numbing,” EDI’s Marks muses.

Some of the year-over-year gain may be attributable to ticket prices, of course. But even penciling in the 5%-6% price boost of recent years, ’02 is tracking well ahead of a year ago.

Adam Fields, a producer of pics including most recently the thriller fantasy “Donnie Darko,” suggests that Sept. 11 and other terrible world events have the public primed for escapist entertainment.

“It’s been a very tough year, and the world out there every day is bleak and depressing and quite terrifying,” Fields observes. “So, big popcorn entertainment is definitely what the public wants right now.”

Looking beyond the next several months’ tentpolers — marked by seeming sure shots like Sony action “Men in Black II” and New Line’s “Austin Powers in Goldmember”– some believe the good times will roll on well past summer.

“I think it’s going to continue,” DreamWorks’ distrib topper Jim Tharp observes. “For the next 18 months, there is such a variety of movies attracting a wide variety of demographics that there’s pretty much something for everybody.”