Summer B.O. quickly losing its will to live

POW! BAM! BASH! The summer season has been dispatching movies with an alacrity reminiscent of Adam West and Burt Ward in the vintage ’60s “Batman” TV series. Following potent debuts, “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” “Speed 2: Cruise Control” and “Batman and Robin” buckled by more than half in their second weeks. “Con Air” slipped by one-third and the best sophomore showing has been a 30% drop for “My Best Friend’s Wedding.”

Not a single wide release since May has held up to word-of-mouth, as movie after movie loses ground every week at a rate exhibitors and distribs understandably find alarming.

As we near the midway point in the busiest annual moviegoing period, seasonal box office is trailing last year’s record pace by 8%; June biz alone is off by close to 20%. To date, only “Lost World” has grossed more than $100 million; in 1996, “Twister,” “Mission: Impossible” and “The Rock” all had exceeded that mark before July 4.

Apart from the “Jurassic” sequel, no movie in the marketplace prior to the Independence Day openings will breeze to blockbuster status without Herculean effort and copious ad buys.

Thus far, it’s been a summer of sizzle as marketing department acumen has successfully translated anticipation, hype and size into dynamic opening weekend B.O. However, judged on the basis of stamina — something even the most clever campaign can’t provide — this is a time of short-distance runners.

Is the audience tired of spectacle?

“Simply making bigger pictures doesn’t equate to having better pictures,” according to CAA agent John Ptak. “The stories and characters have to be compelling. That’s the lesson you learn in Entertainment 101, which makes you wonder whether some people weren’t napping during class.”

Perhaps the problem is that the pictures aren’t terribly good, but quality is nearly impossible to gauge. Response to the current high-profile pics certainly would indicate the films aren’t delivering on an entertainment level.

WHAT’S INARGUABLE IS THAT there are not a lot of viewing options. If one has a penchant for event, special-effects movies, the current crop of “Face/Off,” “Con Air,” “Speed 2,” “Batman and Robin,” et al provides a full platter. Comedies are rare; Julia Roberts in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” is romance with comedy, and “Hercules” is about the only available traditional family fare offering.

Two years ago, when “Batman Returns” debuted to $52 million, alternative viewing choices included “Braveheart,” “Casper,” “Congo,” “Pocahontas,” “Die Hard With a Vengeance” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“Variety is not only the spice of life, it’s one of the most important components in expanding the audience,” said market researcher Joseph Helfgott of MarketCast. “Assuming that any given film works for its primary group, you then have a real opportunity to a secondary and a tertiary audience.”

The impact of a summer with an unprecedented number of big-ticket, high-profile movies is, to date, a season in which fewer people are going to the movies. It’s also been a time when avid viewers increasingly are seeing pictures during their first weekend and a greater percentage of films have been d.o.a. from opening day.

As each blockbuster has opened and rapidly lost speed, the same people who were sighing in relief when “Titanic” steamed into a year-end berth are now sorry it didn’t dock in August. There’s a quiet desperation about the remainder of the summer release schedule. The industry is still four square behind “Men in Black” and hopeful that such films as “Contact,” “Conspiracy Theory” and “Spawn” won’t sputter after an initial flush.

Rapidly decreasing numbers continue to hold out much hope for the summer topping last year’s record $2.2 billion: With the box office approaching $900 million through the holiday weekend, reaching that target appears quite remote. And even hitting that level translates into 3% to 4% fewer tickets.

FOR THE BEAN COUNTERS, nothing quite adds up this summer. Recent campaigns by the major circuits have added roughly 1,000 new screens since last year; the ramping-up of event pics to premiere between Memorial Day and Labor Day has increased production and marketing costs by close to 40%; the revenue growth from international markets has slowed to less than 10%. The end result shouldn’t be fewer people going to the movies.

Status quo was hardly the point of summer ’97. The collective mentality — conscious or otherwise — was that blockbusters would provide the means for a marketplace expansion as unprecedented as the budgets of the pictures driving the commercial engine.

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