LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- Box-office revenue is up almost 15%, while movie admissions are up almost 13% year on year. Conventional wisdom holds the multiplex has simply become a cheap alternative for recession-frazzled consumers, and Hollywood taking any credit is like a rooster taking credit for the dawn.
But what's really driving this year's box-office surge? Three movies: Sony's "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," Fox's "Taken" and Universal's "Fast and Furious" have grossed more than $350 million combined, surprising analysts and outperforming even movie-mogul expectations.
And just how big has the box office been for those films? "Taken" is just shy of $140 million domestically; "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" is at $143 million. And "Fast and Furious" just set an April-weekend record with a $71 million opening.
A closer examination of their success suggests Tinseltown's studios and stars aren't merely reaping the benefits of a nasty recession; they're also creating those benefits by making substantial changes in marketing and distribution -- tweaks that retailers and consumer brands should note too.
Lesson 1: Hit the bricks
By now, everyone knows that "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" overperformed -- but it's how it overperformed that was surprising. The comedy's star, Kevin James, paid personal visits not only to the usual junkets in New York and Los Angeles but also to press events in Dallas, Chicago, Miami and Minneapolis.
"Those are markets that don't usually get the movie star every time," said Jeff Blake, Sony Pictures Entertainment's vice chairman, "and his appearances couldn't have been more helpful."
Miami, traditionally the 17th-highest-grossing market, jumped to the 14th for "Paul Blart" after Mr. James came to town. Minneapolis, usually the 21st, became the 19th. And Dallas moved up from seventh to sixth.
"I don't think anyone's suggesting you send Sean Penn to a hockey game. But we certainly do believe in this kind of grass-roots stuff and will be doing more of it down the line, " Mr. Blake said. "These kinds of things do get built one step at a time."
Lesson 2: Hire hungry talent with something to prove
Despite a loyal following from "King of Queens" and heavy promotion during reruns of the old Sony-owned sitcom, Mr. James was still far from a slam-dunk on the silver screen.
"Especially when you're a TV star that goes over to film, you're one [strike] and out," said Jeff Sussman, Mr. James' manager. "So we said, 'We'll leave no stone unturned as far as publicity; we'll do anything.'"
And so Mr. James worked on Christmas Day, doing live interviews to hype "Paul Blart" during a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game, along with taped interstitial messages that ran throughout the three other NBA games ABC telecast that day. He judged a "Mall Olympics" in Miami. He worked New Year's Eve. He even rode a Segway as the pace car at a Nascar race in Dallas.
That's not to say that every midsize market merits a visit from a movie star. But given that "Paul Blart" opened 50% higher than expected -- at $39.2 million instead of the $20 million Sony forecast -- getting out and seeing their fans is something celluloid celebs probably ought to do more.
Lesson 3: Break taboos
As Mr. James was doing a full day of press on "Radio Row" during the Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., Fox was readying its own Super Bowl surprise -- one that would make for the highest-grossing February in the history of movies.
Having already opened in France a full year earlier, "Taken" was hardly expected to become a huge hit in the States. But then Fox took an unorthodox approach, opening "Taken" on Jan. 30, only 48 hours before the country slid into its annual nachos-and-Buffalo-wings food coma.
"No one had ever put [a film] there, because of the Super Bowl," explained Tony Sella, co-president of marketing at 20th Century Fox. "But movies are all about Friday night, and the Super Bowl was on Sunday," he added. "We knew if the advertising worked, we'd take our money the next weekend, too."
It did. "Taken" opened at just less than $25 million that weekend, but word-of-mouth -- helped no doubt by those gathered for the big game Sunday night who saw it Friday and Saturday -- quickly spread. "Taken" is a rare film that dropped less and less of its audience over time, said Paul Dergarabedian, CEO of Media By Numbers. "Its sixth weekend was stronger than its fourth. That never happens."
Not to be glib, but certainly also part of the reason "Taken" shattered February box-office records was that it was released in ... February.
Which brings us to ...
Lesson 4: Sizzle sells in any season
The lessons of "Taken" are already being proved by the fourth installment of "The Fast and the Furious" franchise, released last weekend.
The three previous films in the franchise all opened in June, after the traditional summer action-movie season was well under way.
"But when looking at the calendar, we saw we could do as much or more business than we could do in the summer," said Adam Fogelson, Universal's president of marketing. "Spring Break is in full effect our first week of our release."
The result was that "Fast and Furious," which reunites the stars from the original film, opened to $71 million, making last weekend's box office the biggest on record for April, a full 62% ahead of the same weekend last year.
"It's a 12-month-a-year business now," Mr. Sella said.