The Recession-Proof Movie Industry

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Most of old media is being slowly euthanized by the shift in the way consumers get content since the beginning of the recession. Magazines, newspapers, and radio are at the top of  list of sectors that are in this terminal stage of their lives. TV has done a little better and cable programs, with their ability to target audiences well, have made it through the downturn with little damage to their revenue.

The movie industry has turned out to be remarkably resilient. The Christmas weekend this year had the best total film revenue of any weekend in history. estimates that total receipts were better than $278 million. “Sherlock Holmes” and “Avatar” did particularly well despite the fact the two movies have nothing in common. One is about an odd alien world created by the film’s director. The other is about an iconic British detective from the 19th Century. A movie about a divorced middle-aged couple engaged in an affair–“It’s Complicated” also did well.

Movies were recession-proof this year. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is the anyone can see the most popular film in the world for $9, as long as he is willing to forgo popcorn and candy. The other crucial reason is that people depressed by the bad economy and unemployment can find a two-hour escape in a film.

The popularity of the movies goes beyond inexpensive escapism. Many of the CEOs of the largest media companies have  made the decision that it is better to create and own content than to operate the means of content distribution, whether that is TV stations, movie theaters, or cable systems. “Content counts” was a trite way for the press to describe the aspiration of media moguls to create the best news and entertainment to charge large sums to consumers and distributors.

The debate about which business is better–content creation or distribution– will go on for some time. Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) would argue convincingly that they can and will make significant revenue by delivering music and premium video. The distributors with the greatest market share in their parts of the media delivery industry may always do well.

It turns out that “content counts” is not just a way for large media company CEOs to encourage shareholder loyalty. People are still willing to pay money to see movies and to download music, and read books on Kindles and Nooks. Movies are now over a century old, but the ability to profit from this art  form has only improved over time.

Douglas A. McIntyre