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B.O. cold front

Year's hot grosses wilt in summer heat

Considering it’s poised to become the second-biggest summer in movie history, the May-August span has been no picnic.

Though a week remains in the official summer period, about 95% of the season’s grosses are in, and they tell a fairly anxious tale. Compared with the record-setting 1999, this summer has been a downer — artistically as well as commercially.

“Following any other year, this would be a fabulous summer,” said Chuck Viane, distrib chief at Disney.

But, he added, “you just didn’t have that carry-through film this year. There seems to be a bit of gloom in the air.”

From May 5 through Labor Day, overall grosses should total about $3 billion, off about 5% from last year’s $3.2 billion mark. It’s the first year-to-year summer decline since 1991.

Year-to-date B.O., which had been up 10% from January through May, will end the summer roughly flat compared with January-August 1999.

Defining summer calendar-wise is an increasingly thorny proposition. It used to start on Memorial Day weekend, but in recent years, early-May smashes such as “Twister,” “The Mummy” and “Deep Impact” have extended the season.

In percentage terms, it doesn’t matter how you define summer 2000, as the May 5-25 period was flat compared with the same span in 1999.

Optimists — and they’re in the minority — point out that summer 2000 is still the second-best on record. The period yielded 12 pics that have crossed (or soon will) the $100 million barrier, the same impressive total as in 1999.

They also argue that the likes of 1999, with mega-titles such as the “Star Wars” prequel, the “Austin Powers” sequel and “The Sixth Sense,” may never be seen again.

“It’s a great summer,” enthused Fox’s Tom Sherak. “All of these movies ‘opened,’ and even the ones without legs will go on to respectable grosses.”

Yet even those trying to turn a frown upside down have to admit that 2000 came up a bit short, given the steep ticket-price hikes, additional U.S. movie screens and hefty budgets and marketing behind summer titles.

With a domestic gross of $213 million, Paramount’s first-place “Mission: Impossible 2” would have ranked third last summer. Seven pics from 1999 cleared $150 million, compared with just five this season. Last year, three passed $200 million, compared with only “Mission 2” in 2000.

No standouts

The most damning trait of the summer, as most critics have carped, is its utter lack of distinguishing characteristics. The phalanx of sequels, gross-outs and actioners occupied a narrow genre range and seemed numbingly calculated to capture every possible demographic.

Not convinced? Then quick, name this summer’s “Yyyeah, baby!” or “life is like a box of chocolates” catchphrase, its White House explosion, its radio-blitzing soundtrack single.

Challenge 10 people in the movie biz to do so, and you’ll get 10 different responses. So instead of trying to fit the square 2000 into a round hole, maybe it’s better to step back, take one last sip of lemonade and spot a few broader themes that shaped summer:

  • Few pics departed from expectations.

    Unlike last year with “The Sixth Sense” and “The Blair Witch Project,” upside surprises were scarce. The most notable included “Gladiator,” “Big Momma’s House,” “Chicken Run,” “Scary Movie,” “X-Men” and “What Lies Beneath” — and several of those were big-budget items, meaning they don’t exactly qualify as sleepers.

    Fewer pics turned out to be significant disappointments — chiefly “Battlefield Earth,” “Titan A.E.,” “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” and “Shanghai Noon” (though the last-named did well enough to merit a sequel in development).

    “Films that died just died. That’s what they always do,” Sherak said. “There’s no new pattern there.”

  • July was the only power month.

    The month set a record, propelled by a historic July Fourth showdown between Sony’s “The Patriot” and Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm.”

    Though “Storm” prevailed, “Patriot” fared OK worldwide. More important, the B.O. was reinvigorated by the competish, posting year-to-year gains for three straight weekends in July. “Scary Movie” and “X-Men” arguably benefited from spillover from the five-day July 4 binge, which spurred the moviegoing habit.

    A lackluster June and August, however, kept the biz tethered to reality. June pics such as “Shaft,” “Gone in Sixty Seconds” and “Me, Myself & Irene” opened strong but didn’t join the ranks of the all-time summer greats.

    Ditto in August, with pics such as “Hollow Man,” “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “Space Cowboys” posting good numbers but laboring in the shadow of last year’s late-summer winners “Sixth Sense,” “Runaway Bride” and “The Blair Witch Project.”

  • Disney and Fox once again will finish neck-and-neck in the market-share race.

    Just as they did last year, the two will battle down to the last day.

    While Disney had success with “Dinosaur,” “Disney’s the Kid” and “Gone,” the summer was much more fulfilling for Fox.

    As production topper Bill Mechanic was being ejected from the studio, he predicted big things for “X-Men.” And the comic book feature delivered, scoring $54.5 million in its debut, second only to Memorial Day behemoth “Mission: Impossible 2.” The exploits of “X” and “Big Momma’s House” helped Fox weather the “Titan” flop and a subpar Jim Carrey outing in “Irene.”

    DreamWorks had the best summer of any company in terms of winning percentage, with “Gladiator,” “Road Trip,” “Small Time Crooks,” “Chicken Run” and “What Lies Beneath” all winding up as unqualified hits.

    “We’ve been pleased with everything,” said Jim Tharp, DreamWorks’ distrib chief.

  • Exhib woes are increasingly unsettling.

    With major circuits Carmike and Edwards each filing for bankruptcy protection during the summer, worries have intensified about the troubled theater business.

    “In the long run, this is good for our business, with some underperforming theaters being weeded out,” Viane reasoned. “But in the short term, it’s definitely painful for everybody.”

    Sherak conceded the circuit troubles “cast a shadow over the business.” But he and other studio execs insist they are delivering high-quality product and that overbuilding is to blame.

    The irony is that more and better screens should have increased the number of showtimes and therefore, perhaps, B.O. itself. But capital spending combined with the sameness of summer pics kept many exhibs from getting back on their feet — an ominous trend being watched closely by studios.

  • PG-13 was the magic number.

    Of the 17 weekends thus far since May 5, 10 of the top-grossing pics have been rated PG-13. Six of the rest were R and only one was rated PG.

  • Four films with blacks in lead roles were solid hits.

    “Shaft,” “Big Momma’s House,” “Nutty Professor II” and “The Original Kings of Comedy” all scored big with black auds, and their varying abilities to draw across all races boosted their grosses.

    “Kings of Comedy” turned a profit in its first wide weekend, grossing a powerful $11.1 million. The $3 million concert film is director Spike Lee’s biggest opener.

  • A lackluster September slate means the slide will likely continue.

    Thanks to the Olympics, the B.O. probably won’t show much of a pulse again until October releases “Meet the Parents,” “Pay It Forward” and “Blair Witch 2” appear.

    At that point, the pressure will be on to exceed the annual total from 1999. Because as much as traditional showbiz would like to take a breather and appreciate the positives of summer 2000, they are operating in a different environment.

    Studios’ corporate parents and investors demand steady increases in revenue — a standard now applied equally on Wall Street and Hollywood Boulevard.

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