Movie popularity: $8 escape or just great films?

What a relief: Tucking yourself inside a dark envelope, letting the wide screen wash you in color and light — and sweep you onto a fast train to unreality.

These days, more Americans are boarding that train. Box-office sales soared 16.5 percent over March of last year, according to Media by Numbers, a Los Angeles ticket-sales tracker.

Between Jan. 1 and March 8, some 264,471,879 people had settled in before their local silver screen — nearly 15 percent more than the same period in 2008.

But on the North Olympic Peninsula, where moviegoers have just 11 screens to choose from, the box-office story depends on whom you talk to.

Rick Wiley, who runs the renovated Uptown Theatre in Port Townsend, said he “would fall right in line with that uptick,” since his ticket numbers reflect the nation’s.

Wiley figures people are treating themselves to movies instead of buying big-ticket items. They can’t afford new cars or trips abroad, he said, but they can slip into the theater for a couple of hours.

“This is an $8 escape,” he said.

Rose Theatre

A few blocks away at the Rose Theatre in Port Townsend, owner Rocky Friedman is seeing a slight jump in his numbers — but he doesn’t credit the tough economy.

“My belief is that when there’s something people want to see, no matter what the season, they will come out for it. And in the last couple of months, there have been some great movies,” Friedman said.

“Slumdog Millionaire,” the fairy tale about a boy from Mumbai, India, that won eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, is one that drew flocks. It closed Thursday night after seven weeks at the Rose.

“Never, in 16 and a half years, have I played a movie for seven weeks,” Friedman said.

But “I also did wonderful business with ‘Doubt,’ ‘Milk’ and ‘The Reader,'” none of which is an escapist or comedic picture.

“The Reader,” as it turns out, is “back by popular demand,” at the Uptown, according to that theater’s recorded rundown of show times. Wiley said the film regained buzz after its star Kate Winslet won the Best Actress Oscar.

Deer Park, Lincoln

At the Deer Park Cinema in Port Angeles, “Slumdog Millionaire” has done “very well,” and is into its fourth week, said Bryan Cook, general manager of Wenatchee-based Sunbasin Theaters, parent company to the Deer Park and the Lincoln Theater in downtown Port Angeles.

Cook declined to comment on whether his two theaters are enjoying the surge in business seen elsewhere in the country.

And John Harsh, who books the movies for both places, said Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” has pulled in more people than “Slumdog.”

The three-screen Lincoln, meanwhile, enjoyed its own kind of fairy tale late last year, when “Twilight” came home to Clallam County.

The movie starring Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson as Bella and Edward, the mortal girl and vampire boy who meet at Forks High School, dine at Bella Italia in Port Angeles and roam the rainforest, had a worldwide fan base thanks to Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series of four novels.

Many of the devotees lined up, in rain and wind, hours before the movie’s premiere at 12:01 a.m. Nov. 21. Then a lot of them came back to see it at least one more time.

“Twilight” was “humongous,” Harsh said. It played for nine weeks at the Lincoln.

“Mamma Mia”

For the Uptown, “Mamma Mia!” a romantic comedy featuring the music of Abba, was the big hit of 2008.

“It was a party,” said Wiley, and even Port Townsend residents, who he calls “savvy, well-read and well-educated,” joined in.

“I had women coming up here, hiding their faces because it was their fourth time,” Wiley recalled. “I said, ‘You don’t have to hide. You’re not alone.'”

None of the theater operators would disclose box-office numbers for particular films, but the Rose’s Friedman offered his view of what made “Slumdog Millionaire” such a phenomenon.

The hero, Jamal, and his childhood friend Latika make it through a stupefying series of harrowing experiences; Jamal defies the men who think he cheated to win on the Indian version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and proves his essential goodness.

Then he joins Latika for a joyous Bollywood-style dance number at the end. The movie affirms something we want to believe in, Friedman said: that “love conquers all.”

“Wendy and Lucy”

This weekend, Friedman is replacing Mumbai with a story set in the Pacific Northwest: “Wendy and Lucy.”

It’s a realistic portrayal of a woman, homeless and jobless, hoping to find work in Alaska. “Wendy” stars “Brokeback Mountain’s” Michelle Williams and Lucy the dog as herself.

This is no light romp. Yet Friedman’s not worried about people staying away.

Besides, the Rose also has “Marley and Me,” a happier movie starring Jennifer Aniston and a mischievous dog, also opening today.

Harsh, meanwhile, acknowledged that theater operators don’t always know which films will strike the right chords in the recession-weary hearts.

His Port Angeles screens will present a mix of light and dark fare this spring: “Monsters vs. Aliens in 3-D,” a Dreamworks animated picture; “The Soloist,” based on the true story of a Los Angeles newspaper columnist who befriends a Skid Row musician; and “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy’s post-cataclysmic novel.

Wiley, for his part, is also offering something fresh at the Uptown. He’s installing a real popcorn popper this week, and plans to fill the place with salt-buttery scent after years of bringing in corn popped off site.

________

Sequim-Dungeness Valley reporter Diane Urbani de la Paz can be reached at 360-681-2391 or at [email protected]

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