Summer expectations soar

Early success, war epic's buzz raise volume

Studio distribution mavens are adopting a new twist on basketball coach Bobby Knight’s famous advice: If “Pearl Harbor” is inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.

Disney’s summer-opening opus couldn’t test better if it starred the thin Elvis. Stratospheric tracking numbers suggest that $100 million in the first four days is not out of the question, especially as the pic has Memorial Day all to itself.

Having seen the final cut last week, exhibitors are lavishing praise on the three-hour “Pearl” — an odd approach given their penchant for downplaying studio offerings to improve their bargaining leverage.

That feverish anticipation, not to mention the staggering haul for “The Mummy Returns” in early May, has raised the bar for June and July releases. Even the biggest of event pics skedded for mid-summer must wrestle with high-stakes strategy issues and also, now, with sky-high expectations. The combination is daunting.

As they ante up their collective billions, even the most battle-tested studio vets see their pulses quicken this time of year.

Each May, everyone starts out with a clean slate, expecting their special-effects extravaganzas to win the hearts of Middle America. But it can be a treacherous path to B.O. glory, with considerable carnage along the way.

The most intriguing exemplar of the pricey balancing act may be “A.I. Artificial Intelligence.”

Warner Bros. (distribbing domestically for partner DreamWorks) has played it ultra-close to the vest, slowly parceling out pieces of a larger marketing puzzle. The enigmatic campaign has left industryites wondering what the film has going for it aside from Steven Spielberg. Only now are the first TV spots showing extended clips or giving any hints as to the plot.

Yet the teasing tactics make sense, both because of the film’s content and because there’s no sense trying to out-blitz “Pearl Harbor” at this stage. People who have seen the “A.I.” script — both of them — insist the story is right in Spielberg’s wheelhouse. Insiders describe it as one part Kubrick and three parts “E.T.”

WB execs say Stanley Kubrick, who wrote a treatment which Spielberg then carried to completion, is dominating the pre-release chatter, but it is Spielberg’s trademark blend of sci-fi and child wonderment which could well prevail.

With the weeks following “Pearl Harbor” loaded with “A.I.” (June 29), Paramount’s “Tomb Raider” (June 15) and Fox’s “Dr. Dolittle 2” (June 22), some B.O. watchers are wondering if 2001 will approximate last year’s front-loaded edition, petering out to an ungainly end. Summer 1999 also started strong, then paused in the middle before roaring to the finish.

July’s momentum is blunted a bit by the Fourth falling on a Wednesday. Strong product surrounds the holiday — “A.I.” before, “Cats and Dogs” and “Scary Movie 2” the day of — but the quirks of the calendar may keep a single title from dominating the period, a la “Men in Black” or “Independence Day.”

Backers of Universal’s “Jurassic Park 3” (July 18) Revolution/Sony’s “America’s Sweethearts” (July 20) and Fox’s “Planet of the Apes” (July 27) hope the summer goes long, as do a raft of second-tier hopefuls crowding August.

Dan Marks, VP at ACNielsen EDI, shares the prevalent sense of optimism about the summer, but notes the ’99 record of $2.79 billion won’t be easy to topple.

One obstacle to breaking records will be the rash of sequels. Familiar franchises build audience awareness — thus early screenings of “Jurassic 3” have generated good buzz — but the appeal doesn’t typically last long.

“Sequels will all open big, but you have to look at them as two- or three-week wonders,” observes one distrib vet.

And in this high-pressure time of year, even sequels are dice rolls. Remember “Speed 2”?

As far as risky propositions across the board, the crowds could see several pics thrown to the lions. Not every summer has a “Godzilla” or a “Judge Dredd” to pick on, but there will be blood on the floor and money left on the table.

One hard-to-predict title is “Moulin Rouge.” It has cachet to spare, having opened Cannes to a fond reception. The U.S. release, though, is a summer rarity — first a two-week run in New York and L.A., then a wide bow.

It may prove wise to platform a film whose kinetic visual barrage hardly gives audiences a chance to reach for the popcorn. At least that way it’s guaranteed three straight weeks of playtime — no small feat in the heat of summer.

(Carl DiOrio contributed to this report.)

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