Betting the store

Hollywood puts big bucks on pricey summer action pics

Studio execs, wracked by anxious times, already are taking solace in their favorite pastime: plotting strategy for their summer tentpoles.

The complete lineup for summer 2002 is far from final, but some of its defining traits are clear: a maze of mega-budget sequels, several action films whose releases were delayed due to the events of Sept. 11 and a surprising number of star vehicles.

The 2002 season promises to be more packed and pricey than last year’s — 25 pics already have release dates, versus 23 at this time a year ago. The ranks of summer candidates swelled due to a surge in production last spring ahead of threatened strikes. Film bizzers will be intrigued to find out if doing the hustle pays off at the box office.

Despite the sensitivities, all indications are that summer 2002 will mark a return to normalcy. Action-prone normalcy, Hollywood-style.

Marc Shmuger, vice chairman of reigning summer champ Universal, believes films can succeed at any time of year.

Still, he concedes, “There are certain times when you have overwhelming franchise opportunities and you salivate at the prospect of summer moviegoing.”

Plenty of mouths are watering over pics already planted. Sony appears to have its best (and biggest-budget) slate since its 1997 record-setter, with “Spider-Man,” “Men In Black 2,” “Stuart Little 2,” “Mr. Deeds,” “Enough” and Revolution’s “XXX.” Fox will usher in the next “Star Wars” installment and Steven Spielberg’s “Minority Report.”

Also dated are New Line’s third “Austin Powers” pic; MGM’s “Windtalkers”; Warner Bros.’ “Showtime” and “Scooby-Doo”; Miramax/Dimension’s “Spy Kids 2”; and DreamWorks’ “Spirit: Stallion of Cimarron” and “The Tuxedo.”

That’s just a sampling of the pics with dates. Still undated but ticketed for summer are Disney’s “Reign of Fire” and “Signs”; MGM’s “A Guy Thing” and “Barber Shop”; Paramount’s “Sum of All Fears” and “Four Feathers”; and Universal’s “Bourne Identity” and an untitled pic starring rapper Eminem.

Star power returns in force after a 2001 ruled by newcomers like Paul Walker, Reese Witherspoon and Anne Hathaway. Among the heavyweights are Tom Cruise (“Minority Report”), Eddie Murphy and Robert De Niro (“Showtime”), Mike Myers (“Austin Powers in Goldmember”). After much deliberation, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones agreed to reunite for “Men in Black 2,” helping boost the budget to $140 million.

The proactive dating may not stick, of course. Only a third of early summer entrants held to their original dates last summer.

“It used to be that when you changed the date the movie was in trouble,” says Tom Sherak, a partner at Sony-based Revolution Studios. “Now, you still have the tentpole movies, but you also have these movies that become tentpoles.”

Universal, for example, likes to keep dates a mystery, enabling it to maximize the upside of sleepers like “The Fast and the Furious” and “Bring it On.” Shmuger describes summer dates as being “carved in Jell-O.”

Without dates, however, the risks for newer prospects like Miramax’s “Gangs of New York” are considerable.

“It certainly seems pretty crowded already,” says Jeff Blake, distribution and marketing chief at Sony and a proponent of claim-staking. “There’s a little more activity than has happened before.”

There are several reasons for the forward-looking stance. Among them:

  • Pent-up appetite for action pics, sequels and special-effects extravaganzas.
  • Nothing says summer quite like bullets, beasts and buddies — ingredients sure to be in steady supply in 2002. After all of the angst from the FTC report and then Sept. 11, next summer will see no phase-out of violent or hard-hitting content.

    From “Spider-Man” to “Star Wars, Episode II — Attack of the Clones” to “Scooby-Doo,” CGI creatures will abound. So will sequels — perhaps not as many as in 2001, but followups don’t get much bigger than “Star Wars,” “Men in Black” and “Austin Powers.” Animation will have its usual DreamWorks-Disney presence.

    • Pics slated for 2001 got bumped to 2002.
    • “Gangs,” which Miramax just pushed from Christmas to a possible summer bow, is one of many high-profile 2001 titles now looming in 2002.

      DreamWorks has “Road to Perdition” set for spring. Fox’s “Behind Enemy Lines” and Disney’s “Count of Monte Cristo” are other examples of pics pushed into 2002 due to delays and an ample year-end crop in 2001.

      Many delayed releases will be in the winter or spring of 2002, but the net effect will be to add weight to next summer.

      • Several 2001 releases succeeded with early dating.
      • “Pearl Harbor” claimed Memorial Day 2001 about a year in advance. Almost as much lead time was given to “Planet of the Apes,” “Shrek” and “Tomb Raider,” all of which delivered.

        It may be a tad early to assess the overall landscape, but one element remains constant: special effects. Just as last summer was dominated by tech touches (even the much-loved “Shrek” was a wholly digital creation), so too will 2002 have an array of expensive computer-driven components.

        That futuristic sheen is the reason why studio marketers, who have mouthed all of the right bromides about how Sept. 11 undid the industry, secretly can’t wait to get back to doing what they do best.

        Production budgets may be blown due to the strike threat, premieres may be downsizing, Oscars are up in the air, but Hollywood’s metier remains mass entertainment on a massive scale.

        The months of hype building up to a pic’s launch contribute to a common complaint about summer fare. Namely, that it is too ephemeral, skyrocketing to colossal first weekends and then falling sharply back to earth.

        “The studios started this by asking, ‘How do you make a movie an event?’ ” Sherak says. “How do you make it like a concert, where everyone wants to get in?

        “They figured out how to do that but the problem is that each film has its own playability. Only once in a while does a film like ‘Shrek’ come along and captivate everybody.”

        Big drops appear just as likely to occur in the high-octane summer of 2002. But after the 2001 season reaped a record $2.95 billion, most studio execs grew accustomed to the laws of gravity.

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