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‘Shopaholic’ crashes into real recession

Walt Disney Co.'s upcoming comedy “Confessions of a Shopaholic” is a movie about a young woman whose compulsive shopping habit plunges her into debt and a financial crisis.

Talk about timing.

The movie, which debuts over Valentine’s Day weekend, is opening at a time when consumers are drowning in credit card debt and suffering through what may be the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Based on the bestselling novels by Sophie Kinsella and starring up-and-comer Isla Fisher, “Shopaholic” could be viewed as a parable for present times. Fisher’s fashion-obsessed character, however, eventually digs out from under her misguided ways and learns what’s important in life.

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Call it Hollywood make-believe slams into real life. The lag time between when a film is conceived and developed and when it rolls into theaters points up how the selling of movies can be complicated by the turn of current events.

Although it may seem like the worst possible moment to release a movie -- even a comedy -- about overspending, Disney marketers and “Shopaholic’s” producer believe that the bleak economic climate could work to the PG-rated film’s advantage.

“The timing for this movie couldn’t be better,” producer Jerry Bruckheimer said. “This is the journey of a young girl who has a problem and she turns her life around. It’s a tale the whole world can learn a lesson from,” added Bruckheimer, who had the project in development for eight years before it was made.

When Disney gave the green light to “Shopaholic” 12 months ago, the world looked a lot different. The Dow Jones industrial average was still over 12,000, only four months from its peak, and many economists had predicted that the worst of the mortgage crisis was behind us. Despite warning signals, few were paying attention to the nearly $1 trillion in consumer credit card debt.

Much has changed. “Shopaholic’s” theme of overindulgence and unmitigated spending comes just as consumers are tapped out on their credit cards and feverishly pinching pennies. Retail spending is in free fall and shopping malls are virtually empty.

Those are rough realities to square with much that is depicted in the film. A shopping gallery of designer brands such as Prada and Marc Jacobs is prominently featured, and high-end stores like Barneys New York and Henri Bendel have costarring roles.

The movie’s trailer, depicting Fisher’s character on a shopping rampage, includes a scene in which she gets into a catfight over a pair of half-price Gucci boots. “Shopaholic’s” poster shows Fisher weighted down with shopping bags, with the caption “All she ever wanted was a little credit. . . .”

Some observers worry that those images may not sit well with potential moviegoers who are having a hard time making ends meet.

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“The recession is catastrophic for many, many people,” said Mark Young, who teaches entertainment business at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “Even though it’s supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, if you just lost your home and can’t pay your bills, the last thing you want to see is someone representing greed and excess.”

Bruckheimer and Disney, however, say that “Shopaholic” is not a celebration of the joys of shopping and that the film’s protagonist, Rebecca Bloomwood, eventually sees the light and reforms her ways. The movie’s trailer makes a reference to Bloomwood’s transformation when, asked how she plans to pay off $9,412.25 of credit card debt, she replies, “I know I’ve made some mistakes, but I’m turning my life around.”

Directed by P.J. Hogan, who made the 1997 romantic comedy hit “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” the story follows the adventures of a young journalist in New York who yearns to work at a fashion magazine but instead is hired as a financial advice columnist for a sister publication.

The current TV spots emphasize how after meeting the man of her dreams -- her boss at the money magazine where she works (played by Hugh Dancy, another rising star) -- Bloomwood realizes that true love means more than a relationship with Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein.

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Jim Gallagher, president of marketing at Disney, said he was confident that “Shopaholic” would play well with audiences who were looking for a light diversion amid these dreary times. It could also be helped by the built-in “chick lit” readers -- the book series has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide -- who have made films like “Sex and the City” a hit.

“I can’t think of a time where people are more in need of laughter and entertainment more than they do right now,” Gallagher said. “This is a great story about empowerment and transformation.”

There is some evidence that people want to see escapist fare to take their minds off their troubles. During the Depression, for example, some of the most popular movies were madcap comedies and musicals like “Top Hat,” with elegant couples such as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers decked out to the nines.

“If people wanted movies to reflect real life, then Iraq war movies would have done a lot better than they did,” says Paul Dergarabedian, who heads the box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers, referring to recent pictures torn from the headlines such as “Stop-Loss,” “In the Valley of Elah” and “Redacted.”

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Since the stock market crashed last fall, several mindless comedies, many widely panned, have attracted crowds at multiplexes, including “Paul Blart: Mall Cop,” “Role Models” and “Beverly Hills Chihuahua.”

Strong performers such as “Mall Cop” helped make January a record-setting month, with domestic grosses topping $1 billion for the first time -- representing an 18.6% jump in box-office revenue over the same month last year. Attendance, although not a record, was up 16.8%.

Howard Bragman, a veteran Hollywood publicist, also believes that the timing of “Shopaholic’s” release will work in Disney’s favor.

“We need glamour and escapism more than ever,” he said. “Let’s put it this way. No one at the Golden Globes was walking down the red carpet in burlap or dresses from the Gap.”

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claudia.eller@latimes.com

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Mindless, but it doesn’t matter

Light comedies, even those panned by critics, have been doing well at the box office as the economy has grown worse. A list of titles with opening date and domestic gross so far:

* Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Jan. 16 ...$83.3 million

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* Bride Wars

Jan. 9....$53.9 million

* Four Christmases

Nov. 26.... $120 million

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* Role Models

Nov. 7.... $67.3 million

* Beverly Hills Chihuahua

Oct. 3.... $94.5 million

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Source: Media by Numbers


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