More Americans flocked to the movies in 2002 than in any year since the invention of television.

Filmgoers plunked themselves in front of the big screen with a tub of popcorn and a soda an estimated 1.52 billion times in 2002 -- an 8 percent hike.

And the box office was boffo, grossing more than $9 billion -- a 12 percent increase from last year's record-breaking numbers.

Experts say the movie mania has been driven by a year chock-full of hugely hyped blockbusters that film fanatics were desperate to see the second they opened.

A desperate need for escapism and the success of low-budget movies such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding have also triggered a new golden age for movies.

Even some occasionally scathing reviews from the critics could not slow the turnout.

A record-breaking 22 movies grossed more than $100 million this year -- including Spider-Man, the latest Star Wars installment, the Harry Potter sequel, Signs, Austin Powers in Goldmember, and Men in Black II.

Experts said the often caustic critics don't have as much of an impact on a movie's box office receipts as some might believe.

"People don't rely on critics; they rely on word of mouth and big marketing campaigns," said Robert Bucksbaum, president of box-office tracking service Reel Source.

"Movies aren't movies any more, they are events. You feel you have to go to them on the first weekend to be part of the scene."

Bucksbaum said the wide variety of blockbusters this year -- from family fare such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets to big action flicks like The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and Spider-Man -- has also helped boost numbers by pulling in crowds from all age groups.

Meanwhile, the prize for the most unexpected hit of the year will go to the romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which cost just $5 million to make and has already pulled in a staggering $221 million.

Experts say the film's Cinderella-style plot has brought audiences back again and again, much like it did for Pretty Woman, which has bolstered the box-office bonanza.

"The combination of big hits, which have been big, plus a lot of successful small films like My Big Fat Greek Wedding have made this a very good year," said Art Levitt, chief of online movie ticket seller Fandango.

Levitt also said 2002 has seen a dramatic increase in moviegoers buying tickets on line.

More people have been encouraged to take a trip to the movies, he said, by knowing they're going to get a seat.

"Consumers are demanding more convenience and now have a big appetite for advance sales," said Levitt.

Levitt added that Fandango took an astounding 6 percent of the opening box-office sales for Lord of the Rings, 5 percent for Harry Potter and 5 percent for Star Wars.

But ultimately it might be something totally different that enticed millions to the movies in 2002.

With an increasingly stressful real world pockmarked with uncertainty, a couple of hours of celluloid escapism can be an ideal antidote to the troubled times outside the theater.

Many of this year's top movies have been fantasy-filled epics featuring gallant heroes, demure damsels and a clear line between good and evil.

Psychologist Patricia Farrell says that combination makes these movies a powerful tonic to worries of war and a tanking economy.

"Fantasy allows us as adults to return to childhood and escape our everyday life and the problems around us," said Levitt. "Any time we are in a severe economic downturn or if there is the possibility of war, we always look for some form of entertainment which is escape-oriented. We saw this in the 1950s, where there was a prevalence of sci-fi films which helped people escape from the fear of nuclear war."