Tips on avoiding a bummer summer in ’99

NEWSWEEK MAGAZINE last week carried its list of “can’t miss” summer movies of 1999. That’s right, 1999. Always eager to stay ahead of the game, they’ve already consigned ’98 to the history books.

Since my attention span seems longer than theirs, I think this year’s summer saga deserves one last glimpse. I learned some important lessons watching the movies of summer ’98.

  • Embarrassment is a trait to be nurtured. Last spring I ran into Fox’s Bill Mechanic and Tom Rothman on separate occasions, and each told me virtually the same thing. “I read this ridiculous screenplay called ‘There’s Something About Mary,’ and I’m embarrassed to admit it’s the funniest thing I ever read,” is what each said. Well, now I know why they were embarrassed. They should find more scripts that embarrass them.

  • Sequels should be spaced at six-year intervals, or longer. Until I saw “Lethal Weapon 4,” I’d always believed sequels should be made within one or two years, but “Lethal” will do over $ 300 million worldwide, thus fracturing that myth. Maybe it’s time to bring back “Andy Hardy” — it’s been a mere 40 years since the last one.

  • Movie stars aren’t needed to sell movies. The studios still seem to believe that star promos are vital, but look at the results of summer ’98. Eddie Murphy bailed on promoting “Dr. Dolittle,” and the movie will top $ 140 million in the U.S. Anne Heche kept proclaiming her love for Ellen DeGeneres, not Harrison Ford , but “Six Days, Seven Nights” still will approach $ 150 million worldwide. In an era of multimillion-dollar TV advertising fusillades, maybe personal appearances on talkshows have become irrelevant.

  • It’s dangerous to split up a partnership. The Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams did some great gross-out movies together — like “Airplane!” — but look what happened when they decided to go head-to-head. Both “BASEketball” and “Jane Austen’s Mafia” tanked. Get it back together, guys.

  • Black moviegoers won’t pay to see white politicians. Warren Beatty made a crazed, funny movie about a white politician who becomes a rapper and then launches into a hallucinogenic inner-city journey, but studies suggest not a single black person in the U.S. ventured to see it. It was a virtual boycott. Come to think of it, not too many white people saw it either. They all missed a good movie.

  • Render unto Disney the things that are Disney’s. Rival studios keep vowing their intention to end Disney’s stranglehold on the animation business, but somehow they never pull it off. This summer’s casualty, “Quest for Camelot” from Warner Bros., grossed $ 25 million in the U.S., while “Mulan” from Disney did $ 120 million in the U.S. alone and over $ 300 million worldwide. All of which proves that Disney either makes them better or sells them better, or both.

  • Size doesn’t matter, at least when it comes to writing credits. In summer ‘ 98, there was an inverse correlation between the number of writers employed on a movie and the ultimate quality of the script. As evidence, consider the following: “Out of Sight” and “There’s Something About Mary” employed the fewest writers. “Armageddon” and “Lethal Weapon 4” employed the most. The case rests.

  • The studios are getting greedy. All the stories summing up summer ’98 quote studio chiefs complaining about the absence of a “breakaway hit.” What are they upset about? Though it’s true the summer produced no $ 500 million hits like “Men in Black” or “Forrest Gump,” at least six movies joined the $ 300 million club worldwide and nine did over $ 100 million in the U.S. alone. Is Hollywood getting whiny, or are budgets getting out of whack?

  • No one should try to forecast summer winners and losers. Last spring Newsweek predicted that “Godzilla” and “Armageddon” would both be “colossal hits.” At least they were half right. They even hyped “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” as a dark horse. Premiere magazine predicted “BASEketball” would be a $ 100 million blockbuster and “Godzilla” would do $ 250 million domestic. They missed by about $ 115 million on “Godzilla.” “Dr. Dolittle” didn’t even merit a mention. Let’s face it, the movie business, like politics, is simply too inscrutable to forecast.

That, in itself, is a good enough lesson to come away with from summer ’98.

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