LOS ANGELES — Times may be tough in the real world. Not in Hollywood.
As it usually does during economic downturns, the movie business has come on strong and is expected to set a summer revenue record of about $4.2-billion from the first weekend in May through Labor Day, according to box office tracker Media By Numbers.
That would put Hollywood a fraction ahead of the previous record of $4.18-billion in summer 2007, though accounting for inflation, the actual number of tickets sold — about 587-million — is down 3.5 percent.
Still, given the sluggish economy, studio executives are happy their business held up so well. It's almost a tradition dating to the Depression: When the economy goes sour, the escapism and relative cheapness of a night at the movies is an attractive prospect.
"Let's face it. It is truly one of the least-expensive ways to entertain yourself for a few hours," said Rory Bruer, head of distribution at Sony, whose summer releases include Will Smith's latest $200-million hit, Hancock.
The behemoth of summer was the Batman sequel The Dark Knight, whose haul — nearly $500-million and counting — amounted to nearly one-eighth of overall Hollywood revenues.
The Dark Knight passed Star Wars to rank No. 2 on the all-time domestic revenue chart, behind only Titanic at $600.8-million.
"We would not be looking at a $4-billion summer if not for The Dark Knight," said Paul Dergarabedian, Media By Numbers president. "In this case, one film made a huge difference."
The Dark Knight and four other superhero tales — Hancock, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk and Hellboy II: The Golden Army — rang up $1.25-billion, 30 percent of the summer box office.
Add in the $315-million take for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and it's clear that audiences were looking for pure adventure this summer.
"It's the old story," said Dan Fellman, head of distribution at Warner Bros. "Give the people what they want and they'll come out in big numbers."