“It’s not rocket science,” USC academic Martin Kaplan tells N.Y. Times reporters Michael Ceiply and Brooks Barnes. “People want to forget their troubles, and they want to be with other people.”

Kaplan is explaining two facts: (1) 2009 ticket sales are up 17.5 % over last year for a tally of $1.7 billion, according to Media by Numbers, and (2) attendance has also jumped by nearly 16 %. Ceiply and Barnes conclude that “if this pace continues through the year, it would amount to the biggest box-office surge in at least two decades.”

Which underlines the old adage about the movie business being recession- or depression-proof and then some.

Except it’s not. Movie advertising has been down even in the online sector, there’s a general feeling of belt-tightening and weltschmerz out there, Warner Bros. recently fired a ton of people, long- and short-term loans are obviously harder to come by due to the general economic slump, fewer journalists attended Sundance six weeks ago and far fewer will attend Cannes, and so on. The bottom line is that the film business is booming as far as ticket sales are concerned, and yet things are looking lean and scary regardless.

Are we clear on that?