'Transporter' hot, but the season certainly was not

“The Transporter 2″ delivered on a surprisingly strong Labor Day weekend, but as summer came to a close, one weekend couldn’t do much to make up for a weak season.

Despite the impact of Hurricane Katrina, “Transporter” set a new record for the holiday. Fox actioner ran off with $20.3 million in four days on 3,303 screens. With a gross nearly matching the 2003 original’s cume of $25.3 million, pic showed that good buzz on homevideo can help propel a sequel to a film that got little attention in its theatrical run.

But it’s the big picture that has studios shaking: Summer take totaled $3.53 billion, down 9% from last year’s $3.86 billion and the lowest figure since 2001’s $3.34 billion.

While the slumping summer box office has for some time been much analyzed both inside and outside the movie industry, distrib execs are still grappling with whether this year’s poor results have larger implications for the biz.

And an overall decline is actually something that has hit all mass media as network ratings hit hard times this summer, and Broadway ticket sales have also dropped precipitously.

“I think it remains to be seen what it means,” said New Line distrib prexy David Tuckerman. “If everything I’m reading is really why the summer is down — the product isn’t good, (auds) hate the commercials, they hate the prices — none of that is going to change except the films may get better.”

None of the frequently cited factors for slumping ticket sales — whether it be competition from homevid, the shrinking DVD window, rising ticket and concession prices and audience gripes with the overall theatrical experience — is new to the industry.

“Honestly, I think you have a combination of things, not the least of which is the quality of the product,” said Paramount distrib prexy Wayne Lewellen. Other factors, including competish from DVD, may represent “erosions at the core of the industry,” he added.

In fact, 2005 reps the third straight year that movie attendance — the actual number of tickets sold — has declined.

Though box office in 2004 was barely higher than in 2003, attendance was down 2.3%. In 2003, attendance was down 4.9% from 2002.

One positive effect of the continued focus on the box office slump, said Sony distrib prexy Rory Bruer, is that it will make the theatrical biz confront its long-term problems.

“I don’t know if this year is somewhat of an anomaly,” Bruer said, “but in regards to just the theatrical business itself, it’s probably one of those things that makes everyone look at their business and ask, ‘What are we doing right and what are we doing wrong?’ “

While there have been plenty of hits this season — “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” “War of the Worlds,” “Batman Begins,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Madagascar,” “Wedding Crashers,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Longest Yard” and “Fantastic Four” among them — there were far fewer midrange success stories.

In fact, so far, the 10 top films of the summer have garnered nearly $2 billion, nearly even with the $2.06 billion taken in by last year’s top 10 summer titles. It is the next tier of pics that suffered, dropping more than 30% (Daily Variety, Aug. 21).

In all, nine titles have grossed more than $150 million this summer. Last year there were just five. But while 13 pics grossed between $75 million and $150 million last year, just three look like they will end up in that broad range: “Monster-in-Law” and perhaps “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.”

Can’t always expect growth

In the end, the biggest lesson of Hollywood’s slump this summer may be that box office is not destined to grow year after year. “I don’t know any industry that continues to grow forever, especially a mature one,” said Par’s Lewellen.

As for other pics over the weekend, U’s “40-Year-Old Virgin” continued to hold well, taking second place with $16.6 million in its third week. Drop of just 20% has pic following path of the summer’s other R-rated comedy with legs, “Wedding Crashers.”

And Focus’ “The Constant Gardener” launched strongly, with $10.9 million on 1,346 screens. “Gardener” had the weekend’s strongest per-screen average, giving Focus hope pic will show legs.

Weekend’s other openers did poorly. Miramax’s Nick Cannon comedy “Underclassman” barely missed cracking the top 10, grossing $3.1 million from 1,132 playdates.

‘Sound’ of no hands clapping

Warner Bros.’ “Sound of Thunder,” which bowed on only 860 screens, made just $1.1 million. Warner expected little from the pic, which was produced by bankrupt Franchise Pictures. WB was required to release it under their distribution agreement.

In indie release, Palm Pictures’ “William Eggleston in the Real World” made $8,920 on one screen in New York and a total of $14,805 since its Wednesday opening.

Lions Gate doc “Grizzly Man” made a strong $2,667 per play in three days on 105 screens for a $365,000 holiday weekend and cume of $1.7 million.

In its second week, Sony Pictures Classics’ “Memory of a Killer” made $41,986 on 13 plays for a three-day per screen of $2,460 and cume of $97,327.

Indie’s “Junebug” made $318,904 in 91 plays. Three-day per screen was $2,570 and cume stands at $1.16 million.

SPC’s “2046” made $177,000 on 46 screens, bringing cume to $859,000. Three-day per-screen was $2,897.

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