Summer champ Fox can take the heat

'Apes,' 'Dolittle 2' and 'Moulin' among big releases

If there’s one company that could be called “the studio of summer,” it’s 20th Century Fox.

Over the past six years, nearly 50% of Fox’s annual box office take has come between Memorial Day and Labor Day. That compares with only 35% for Sony, Universal and Paramount. Disney and Warner Bros. hover around 40%.

This summer, the ratio could be even greater. In fact, it better be, what with releases like “Planet of the Apes,” “Dr. Dolittle 2” and “Moulin Rouge.”

No one’s taking pot shots at Fox’s summer syndrome — the industry as a whole gleans roughly 40% of its grosses in that period.

But the studio’s dependency seems ironic in view of its protestations of two or three years ago when it was championing the year-round “niche picture.”

In an effort to aim its films at specific demographics, Fox even divided the company into designated units. There was, for instance, Fox 2000 for specialized films, and Fox Animation, formerly Fox Family Films.

Well, the units are still around, but the grand design has disappeared. The demise of Bill Mechanic as studio chief may be one contributor.The numbers suggest that Fox’s big summers aren’t coincidental, but rather a result of planning, marketing and tradition. But Fox execs — none of whom would speak on the record — deny centering their tentpoles in the sand. “Fox has always had a 52-week studio strategy,” says Tom Sherak, former chairman of 20th Domestic Film Group and now a partner in Sony-based Revolution Studios. “But,” he allows, “you always try to have big titles for the summer.”

Sherak says that while Fox never strategized to have the majority of the money come out of summer, the trend “probably began with ‘Star Wars’ back in 1977.”

Fox doesn’t need to concentrate its films to achieve its summer boom. This year, the studio will release five of its 13 yearly releases during the summer, a percentage consistent with the other studios.

In 2000, for example, Paramount released four of its 12 pics during summer, while Fox released five of 14.

This summer, Fox has the potential to make more than the usual 50% of its yearly B.O. The studio’s summer tentpoles are spread apart, avoiding head-to-head combat.

Another positive indicator for Fox is the strength of its slate.

“Fox has got a lot of product and a diverse mix of films. They are taking some risks, but also leveraging off prior successes,” says Tom Borys, prexy of B.O. tracker ACNielsen EDI.

After a sluggish start in 2001 — “Monkeybone,” “Say It Isn’t So,” “Someone Like You” and “Freddy Got Fingered” have brought the studio an uninspiring $43 million — Fox needs bracing summer perfs from tentpoles like “Apes,” “Dolittle” and “Moulin Rouge.”Year to date, the studio has taken in $178 million,largely due to the success of “Cast Away,” which has earned $122 of its $232 million total in 2001.

(Even though the numbers for the Tom Hanks starrer created Fox’s highest holiday gross in the past six years, the studio is currently No. 6 in market share.)

However, Fox is ahead on its earnings compared with the same period last year. Pre-summer 2000, the studio had minted only $66.2 million before scoring big with “X-Men,” “Me, Myself and Irene” and “Big Momma’s House.”

Still, even for Fox, summer is anything but a sure bet. The company is as prone to booms and busts as any other.

In 1998, summer blockbusters such as “There’s Something About Mary” and the first Eddie Murphy-toplined “Dr. Dolittle” earned Fox a whopping 74% of its annual business, or $526.9 million of $716.5 million.

But that year, Fox barely showed up for the year-end holidays span, bringing in an anemic $17.5 million at the box office.

Conversely, the summer of 1997 was a cruel one for Fox: The studio raked in a measly 17% of its annual take ($110.6 million of $636.8 million) with pics such as “Speed 2,” “Picture Perfect” and “Out to Sea.”

But six months later, Fox went on to score its second biggest holiday season in the past six years.

The studio has also proven resilient to industrywide summer slumps. Last year, when the summer B.O. had its first year-to-year decline since 1991, Fox was nevertheless on track with its average: Blockbusters such as “X-Men” and “Big Momma’s House” brought in $389 million, or 53% of its $728.6 million annual total.

When asked the secret to their summer success with pics such as “Independence Day” and “Star Wars, Episode I — The Phantom Menace” (each grossed around $280 million in the play period alone), Fox execs become cagey. They resist being labeled as “the summer studio,” or revealing the specifics of Fox’s yearlong distribution strategy.

Reasoned or not, though, Fox’s summer 2001 looks particularly bright. Musical “Moulin Rouge,” which opens Cannes on May 9, is generating early buzz.

And sandwiched between “Dolittle 2” and Tim Burton’s highly anticipated retelling of “Planet of the Apes” is “Kiss of the Dragon,” starring Jet Li. Fox wraps the summer with pop crooner Mariah Carey in her first starring role in “All That Glitters.”

And for 2002, with Tom Cruise starrer “Minority Report” and “Star Wars: Episode II” on tap, Fox is making a bid for a record amount of fun in the sun.

“Next summer is going to be huge for Fox,” Sherak observes. “When have you ever seen Spielberg and Lucas at the same studio in the same summer?”