LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Looking for some holiday spirit to escape the economic gloom? Never fear, Hollywood is here.
This weekend marks the formal kick-off to the annual U.S. holiday season during which the major movie studios release many of their best films that will either lure huge audiences to theaters or gain traction in the race to February's Oscars.
Wednesday's debut of films such as relationship comedy "Four Christmases," action-packed "Transporter 3" and epic romance "Australia," as well as Oscar hopeful "Milk," provide the spark for six more weeks of red hot moviegoing that will account for nearly 20 percent of annual ticket sales.
"The thing about holiday movies, as usual, is that there really does seem to be something for everybody," said Dave Karger, movie writer for Entertainment Weekly magazine.
Already, the box office is on a roll with the latest James Bond flick "Quantum of Solace" and teenage vampire romance "Twilight" beating expectations two weekends in a row. Each took in about $70 million their respective opening weekends.
Paul Dergarabedian, president of box office watcher Media by Numbers, noted that only one weekend in the past two months has seen ticket sales dip from the same time last year.
"Momentum is with us, and momentum is key because the more people are in theaters, the more they see (promotion) trailers and marketing materials. It's a snowball effect," he said.
Overall U.S. and Canadian box office receipts are up only slightly at $8.34 billion this year compared to $8.32 billion at the same point one year ago. Attendance is down 4.2 percent, according to Media by Numbers.
But if the rule holds true that escapist movies do well in tough times, the gloomy economy could bring glad tidings for Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Keanu Reeves, Will Smith, Jim Carrey and many others.
After Jackman and Kidman finish romancing each other in epic "Australia," or Reese Witherspoon and Vince Vaughn have had their fill of family issues in comedy "Four Christmases," along comes action-packed "Punisher: War Zone" on December 5.
The weekend of December 12 sees Reeves bring out "The Day the Earth Stood Still," a remake of 1951's classic sci-fi adventure about an alien whose presence on Earth causes a global stir. Also that weekend comes family comedy, "Nothing Like the Holidays" starring Debra Messing.
One week later, Will Smith brings audiences the drama "Seven Pounds" about an IRS agent with the ability to change the lives of seven strangers. Jim Carrey seeks laughter in comedy "Yes Man," which tells of a man who just can't say "no," and for families there is animated "The Tale of Despereaux."
The big movie onslaught continues December 25 with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson in a comedy about a dog, "Marley and Me," and family adventure, "Bedtime Stories," which has Adam Sandler as a man who tells wild tales that start to come true.
Frank Miller's "The Spirit," also debuts on Christmas Day and is based on the comic books by Will Eisner about a rookie cop who returns from the dead to fight crime.
Throughout all those weeks, the movie studios will sprinkle theaters with Oscar contenders starting with "Milk," which has Sean Penn in a strong performance as San Francisco gay activist Harvey Milk fighting for civil rights in the 1970s.
"There's not much light funny stuff among the Oscar movies. Thank goodness for 'Slumdog Millionaire'," said Karger, about the currently playing romance that has been tipped for awards.
Then again, Oscar watchers like dark dramas, and among the best this year may be "Frost/Nixon" which looks behind the scenes at the classic interviews of disgraced U.S. president Richard Nixon by British TV personality David Frost.
Tom Cruise brings out World War II drama "Valkyrie," about a Nazi officer who tries to kill Hitler, and Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett turn in strong work for "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," which tells of a man who ages backward.
Finally, there is Mickey Rourke making a comeback in festival favorite "The Wrestler"; "Titanic" stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio reuniting in "Revolutionary Road"; Oscar favorite Clint Eastwood with "Gran Torino," and Academy Award winners Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Doubt."
Editing by Belinda Goldsmith