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This summer, more Americans may head to movie theaters

The cinema is a popular option during 'staycations.' Plus, enhancements to theaters like stadium seating haven't hurt.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 22, 2009

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

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Berkeley, Calif.

Judd Stein, exiting the United Artists Cinema on Shattuck Avenue here, represents several of the trends driving the Hollywood box office to great success – 16 percent ahead of last year – despite the national economic downturn.

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First, he is still smiling after shelling out $10.25 times four for his family, not including three small popcorns at $5.75 each. While the total seems high at first blush, it's a drop in the bucket compared with the cruise idea that morphed into an Arizona road trip that morphed into a "staycation."

"I just saved several thousand dollars, so anything less than $100 feels like nothing to me," says the bank clerk with a smile.

But getting out of the house is now paramount. "I'm not going to skip a Mexican cruise and rent a movie at home," he says. "There's something about the primal experience of sitting down in a darkened theater with a community of people that takes you out of yourself."

His comments are music to the ears of the movie industry, which does 40 percent of its business between May and August. Even though critics have not been kind to many of the big-budget films that have debuted in recent weeks – among them "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Angels & Demons" – box-office grosses are ahead of last year's all-time record. And the number of admissions is up about 10 percent.

According to cinema-industry analysts, people seek more out-of-home entertainment during economic hard times, and movies remain among the least expensive forms of out-of-home entertainment. During the past seven recession years, both box-office and admissions increased in five of them.

"People are staying home from vacation, so they are still searching for something they can do as a family," says Randy Roberts, a pop-culture historian at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind. Although ticket prices have jumped in many areas of the country, they are still cheaper, on average, than movie tickets in 1978, adjusted for inflation. The $2.34 average movie ticket then would cost $7.62 today, but the average ticket price for 2008 was $7.18.

Many trends are still progressing to improve the moviegoing experience, after fears in 2005 that movie theaters were going the way of the dinosaurs. Attendance had dropped for 18 straight weeks to the lowest in three decades.

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