The summer of mixed messages

Next week sews up the first half of the year, and the boxoffice is sending midpoint mixed messages.

Thus far, 2005 has seen a string of 17 weekends that haven’t measured up to last year. Even more troubling to Hollywood is the damp summer season, which is off to its worst start in four years.

The gaps between ’05 and 2004 are evidence of a fundamental shift in the way Americans consume movies.

Bottom line: The 2004 tallies were inflated by “The Passion of the Christ,” which rang up $371 million over a traditionally weak portion of the calendar — and its B.O. was fueled by people who are not traditional moviegoers.

So the dropoff in 2005 for the comparable February-April period is inevitable.

But the summer’s results are more troubling. Despite several strong titles including “Batman Begins,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Madagascar,” “The Longest Yard” and, of course, “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith,” the summer season continues to struggle.

It’s all indicative of the hit-and-miss nature of the business: Sometimes blockbusters can materialize out of nowhere, sometimes “sure things” fail to click with auds.

Seven weekends into the most lucrative box office season, receipts since the first week of May stand at $1.34 billion, the lowest since 2001.

Compared with last year’s start — which featured back-to-back giant openings of “Van Helsing,” “Troy,” “Shrek 2,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” — this year’s tally is trailing 8.2% or $120 million behind.

Since Mel Gibson’s Crucifixion pic brought a huge number of people into movie theaters — people who are unlikely to return for, say, a Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie actioner — the pic’s grosses are not the best measure of the health of the marketplace.

It was widely expected that the winter and spring this year would finish down against 2004.

Still, even without a biblical blockbuster on the release sked, year-to-date totals for 2005 were off 5.8% ($153 million) before summer started, a reasonable gap under the extraordinary circumstances.

What followed was a pair of extraordinarily weak summer weekends (not counting the futile efforts by Sony and Disney to start summer in April with “XXX: State of the Union” and “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” respectively).

In the first week of May, Fox’s $19.6 million opening for “Kingdom of Heaven” topped a frame where receipts totaled $87 million, the worst results of the year. Overall biz improved to $102 million the next week with “Monster-in-Law” and “Kicking & Screaming,” but didn’t match the levels set in recent early summers.

It took “Star Wars’ ” $108 million three-day bow the third weekend of May to expand the marketplace by the extent more familiar in past summers.

As soft as the summer looks, it also underlines the difference that just a couple of pics can make. 

So far this summer there have been five pics that either have grossed or certainly will gross more than $100 million: “Star Wars,” “Madagascar,” “The Longest Yard,” “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and “Batman.”

Last year, the first seven weeks of the season produced six pictures that crossed that mark: “Shrek 2,” “Harry Potter,” “The Day After Tomorrow,” “Troy,” “Van Helsing” and “Dodgeball.”

And though on percentage terms the summer looks like it’s very soft, the difference is fairly small in blockbuster terms.

The difference between the performances of “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Van Helsing” (both launched as the season’s first titles) at this point is $71 million. The difference between “Monster-in-Law” and “Troy” (also launched from the same berths) is $50 million. The combined $121 million difference matches up nearly perfectly with the season’s deficit.

These two pictures are not the reason for the “slump,” but they do show that when an industry sets out to break box office records every year, there’s very little room for error.

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