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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Wholesome family movies are looking increasingly strong at U.S. box offices during Hollywood's lucrative summer season as recession-weary parents with kids in tow pack theaters for affordable entertainment.
The recent tilt toward family friendly films points to strong ticket sales for Disney/Pixar's film "Up" and other kid-oriented movies such as July's new "Harry Potter" film. "Up," which opens Friday, is about an old man and a boy who fly around in a house lifted by balloons.
Last weekend, family-oriented comedy "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian" earned $54 million and beat its more adult-themed competitor, action/adventure "Terminator Salvation," landing atop the North American box office.
"In the recession, families are looking for activities outside of home, and a (family) movie allows Mom and Dad, the teens and the little kids to enjoy a movie together," said Paul Dergarabedian of Hollywood.com Box Office.
Several other family films have scored well with audiences in recent months and few have failed, experts said.
In January, clean comedy "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" became a surprise hit and went on to make $177 million at worldwide box offices on a budget estimated at $26 million.
DreamWorks Animation SKG's "Monsters vs. Aliens" has made more than $345 million worldwide, and other family-oriented hits have included "Race to Witch Mountain, ""Hannah Montana The Movie" and "Hotel for Dogs."
Chris Aronson, senior vice president of distribution for 20th Century Fox, the studio behind 2006's "Night at the Museum," said the recent "Smithsonian" sequel is that elusive box office phenomenon -- a comedy appealing to older audiences that also receives a family-friendly "PG" U.S. movie rating.
"I think you take the PG rating and couple it with the times we're going through right now, and that becomes a potent all-audience combination," he said.
Chuck Viane, head of domestic distribution for Disney attributed the uptick in sales for family films to the relatively inexpensive cost of going to a movie theater.
"It wasn't more than a couple years ago that people thought the price of movies was too high, but in reality when a movie is judged against other forms of entertainment, like a sporting event or concerts, it is the cheapest ticket," Viane said.
"Up" is expected to make from $50 million to $60 million this weekend when it opens, box office watchers said.
Theater owners like family films, too, because parents often buy more popcorn and drinks than the average moviegoer.
But when too many family films hit theatres at once, it can create a glut that depresses ticket sales, as happened in summer 2002 when movies like Sony Pictures' "Stuart Little 2" and Disney's "The Country Bears" met strong competition.
In 2009, that has not happened as media tracking company Nielsen said 21 films have received family-friendly ratings which is in-line with the same period last year.
And parents can expect to spend more time at the theater, when "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince" opens on July 15. Based on the success of the previous five films in the series, it is expected to be one of the summer's biggest blockbusters.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte