Is all the B.O. angst justified?

The Backlot by Peter Bart

Every Monday we hear their clarion call: The gloom-and-doomers peer at the box office data and conclude that the plague years are upon us.

Are they right? At summer’s halfway point, the definitive answer is: Yes and no.

For 17 straight weekends, say the gloom-and-doomers, box office has measured lower than last year. But if you take “Passion of the Christ” out of the equation, the numbers this year would be slightly higher than in 2004. And “Passion” was, after all, a “onetime” event, independent in its financing, release and ideology.

The G & D set says this year’s downturn reflects the fact that Hollywood is giving us mediocre product. OK, but consider the following: The two biggest disappointments of 2005 are “Cinderella Man” and “Kingdom of Heaven.” Both are excellent films, considerably more ambitious than “Van Helsing,” “Troy” or the “Day After Tomorrow,” which took in far more money last summer. Arguably, this year’s problems stem from questionable release dates and marketing strategies, not issues of quality.

The G & Ders point to studies indicating that filmgoers in theory would prefer to watch movies at home rather than in theaters. This is about as relevant as asking couples whether they’d prefer to have sex atop the Eiffel Tower or at a Motel 6. In point of fact, filmgoers still pay to go to theaters and, if anything, seem to be drifting away from collecting DVDs. Indeed, the pattern of DVD sales looks more and more like film: There’s a two- or three-week rush for a new release, followed by apathy.

Listen to the G & D crowd, and they’ll tell you the downturn has spread to the overseas market. Again, yes and no. Last year saw a cluster of $300 million-plus releases like “The Last Samurai,” and “Troy” and even some $500 million-plus phenomenon such as “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” which soared past $540 million, and “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” which hit $742 million outside the U.S. And, yes, there was Mel Gibson’s “Passion” again hitting $240 million overseas.

Those were remarkable numbers, and 2005 won’t match them, though the third “Star Wars,” “Meet the Fockers” and “Ocean’s Twelve” are giving it a try. Even “Kingdom of Heaven,” which will barely scratch its way to $50 million in the U.S., has passed $150 million abroad.

So, long-term, are the habits of filmgoers changing? Absolutely. Will consumers spend more time online, or on gaming or watching porn on demand? Without doubt. Will the windows separating DVD release and theatrical release continue to diminish? They sure will.

But here’s a suggestion to the gloom-and-doomers: If you want to get depressed, turn your attention to Iraq. Give Hollywood a breather.

* * *

The Hughes enigma

Instant recognition is the dream of every artist, but the ego jolt stemming from that success can prove to be a time bomb. A case in point is John Hughes, a tempestuous talent who burst on the scene exactly 20 years ago. During his heyday in the mid-’80s, Hughes created hits like “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” that studios to this day would yearn to replicate. When Warner Bros. put “Home Alone” in turnaround, Joe Roth became an instant hero for picking it up at 20th Century-Fox.

To be sure, working with Hughes during his peak years was akin to a tour of duty at Abu Ghraib. He randomly fired aides and a.d.’sand daily reminded everyone around him that he was the resident genius. CAA launched him, but he quit to go to ICM, then returned to CAA all within a two-year span, finally ending up at William Morris and then recently back at CAA. He built a sprawling farm-retreat near Chicago, declined ever to talk to the press and rarely, if ever, visited Hollywood.

Now and then Hughes tried a comeback, but with marginal success. He wrote “Maid in Manhattan” for Jennifer Lopez and rewrote some scripts under the name of Edmond Dantes. Revolution Studios periodically announced a new overall deal with the Hughes Machine, but little materialized.

Hughes’ films were, to be sure, perfectly crafted for Reagan America. They were superficially hip, but mushy soft at the core. They were seemingly edgy, but always optimistic.

Hughes’ audience, now middle-aged, remembers Hughes’ films with a fond glow and would love to revisit them. The trouble is they’re not young anymore. Neither is Hughes.

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