Unlikely hits show power of movies in touch economy

Most years, new movies released in January and February are afterthoughts, often inexpensively made comedies, horror films or thrillers competing with Oscar-nominated fare.

In 2009, with the economy dim, the afterthoughts have taken over the box office spotlight.

"Taken," an action thriller, and "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," a comedy, have emerged as unexpected hits. Built around non-superstars Liam Neeson and Kevin James, they have eclipsed $100 million in box office receipts, a key ticket benchmark for success.

Throw in Tyler Perry's "Madea Goes to Jail," last weekend's box-office leader (opening at $41 million), and you have surprising numbers for the first two months. The New York Times reported that ticket sales are up 17.5 percent, to $1.7 billion; attendance is up nearly 16 percent.

The movies share this trait: they help viewers forget their troubles. In dark theaters filled with silliness or suspense, moviegoers can find relief from the gloom.

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