As they file into megaplexes this summer, moviegoers could be humming the classic Lew Brown-Sammy Fain tune “That Old Feeling.”
The season’s film slate tilts toward sequels, historic epics, adaptations of popular videogames, a remake (though the studio insistently labels it as an original) and Steven Spielberg’s return to sci-fi.
But the specter of 2000’s bummer summer looms large. With a slate of films that was similarly “safe,” last year’s summer B.O. notched the first year-to-year decline since 1991 — a 5% drop to $2.6 billion from the record $2.8 billion mark in 1999.
The dropoff is key because major studios bring in around 45% of their annual revenue between May and August.
So far, 2001 grosses are up an astounding 22% over 2000 levels, which raises the big question for summer: Will the schedule of big, familiar-sounding films rev up the box office engine, or will it create a serious speed bump?
Familiarity can breed contempt, especially among fickle auds and itchy-fingered exhibs. But, as this week’s exhibitor confab ShoWest unofficially kicks off the summer hype season, the industry is banking on the fact that familiarity done with the right twist can yield profitable results.
Last year’s offerings displayed a numbingly predictable profile; the 2001 crop could match or even surpass that. But studio execs and exhibs are optimistic, since this summer’s “safe” fare carries a considerable pedigree and promises some intriguing twists to the formula.
Among the sequels on tap are Universal’s “The Mummy Returns,” Fox’s “Doctor Dolittle 2,” Miramax’s “Scary Movie 2,” New Line’s “Rush Hour 2” and U’s “Jurassic Park 3” and “American Pie 2.”
Vidgame vets have already played actioners “Tomb Raider” (from Paramount) and “Final Fantasy” (Sony), while two of the biggest-budgeted pics break ground while treading on recognizable turf: Disney’s “Pearl Harbor” and Fox’s “Planet of the Apes.”
Even some of the release dates are clones.
“Mummy Returns” occupies its predecessor’s early-May slot. Ditto for “Scary Movie 2.” The Martin Lawrence laffer from MGM, “What’s the Worst That Can Happen?” has the same early-June slot as Lawrence’s 2000 hit “Big Momma’s House.”
And a year after Disney opened the computer-animated “Dinosaur” in the third weekend in May, DreamWorks’ computer-animated “Shrek” will try that identical frame.
“There are a lot of well-known properties out there,” notes Jeff Blake, Sony’s distribution and marketing prexy.
That pattern is one reason Blake is high on “A Knight’s Tale,” the offbeat Heath Ledger starrer set in medieval times yet boasting a rock soundtrack.
“On paper, it’s not a certain blockbuster, but every summer there is something different that really stands out and breaks through.”
Breakthroughs beget momentum, as last July taught us. After a dismal June that featured a dearth of big releases, “The Perfect Storm,” “Scary Movie,” “X-Men” and “What Lies Beneath” all outperformed expectations to boost the B.O. to its best July showing ever.
If any of the less-heralded pics can similarly catch fire this time, many B.O. observers see a sizzling summer.
“It’s an unusually good product mix,” says Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. “Also, the summer starts early and ends late.”
Adds Dick Cook of Disney, “I feel like it could be the best summer ever.”
From the looks of it, the only thing studios have to fear is “Pearl Harbor” itself. Consider:
- Tentpoles are spread apart. The 37 wide releases planned for early May through Labor Day represent a decrease from 41 in 2000 and 48 in 1999.
“Mummy Returns” kicks things off May 4, and “Pearl Harbor” will launch on Memorial Day. “A.I.” is slotted for the last weekend in June, followed by “Planet of the Apes” on July 27.
That leaves potentially lucrative seams for multiple contenders, including: Warner Bros.’ “Swordfish” and “Cats and Dogs,” Disney’s “Atlantis,” Fox’s “Moulin Rouge,” MGM’s “Original Sin,” Paramount’s “The Score,” U’s “The Fast and the Furious,” Sony-Revolution’s “America’s Sweethearts” and “Animal,” and DreamWorks’ “Evolution.”
“Things do look nicely paced,” says Tom Borys, prexy of B.O. tracker A.C. Nielsen EDI, “but there’s no room for missteps when you’re trying to get to that level. You can’t have potholes like we did in June last year.”
- There are not as many head-to-head battles.
Last year, in an epic July Fourth duel, Sony’s “The Patriot” faced off against Warner Bros.’ “The Perfect Storm,” with Universal’s “Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle” also bowing wide. Memorial Day featured “Shanghai Noon” versus “Mission: Impossible 2.”
This time, “Pearl Harbor” should have Memorial Day to itself. On June 29, effectively the start of the July Fourth holiday frame, “A.I.” will be opposed only by Sony’s “Baby Boy,” a mid-budget drama from helmer John Singleton.
There are a few skirmishes — “Atlantis” versus “Tomb Raider” on June 15, four wide releases on June 8 and three battling on July 13 — but nothing that will make or break a studio’s fortunes.
- Summer is longer than ever.
Early May has for years marked the start to summer, even though the season’s statistics don’t start counting until the Friday before Memorial Day. In a new wrinkle this year, “Mummy Returns” is already widely viewed as a strong contender, whereas “Gladiator,” “Deep Impact” and the first “Mummy” were surprises when they hit big in previous early-May weekends.
In the back half of summer, “Planet of the Apes,” “Jurassic 3” and “Rush Hour 2” all offer a promise to carry through to Labor Day. “American Pie 2,” Warners’ “Osmosis Jones,” Disney’s “The Princess Diaries,” Miramax’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and MGM’s “Rollerball” also are skedded for the season’s final six weeks.
During the 2000 holiday period, “Charlie’s Angels” and “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas” reminded everyone a few strong season-openers can energize the whole period.
This summer, the industry is counting on curtain-raisers “Mummy Returns” and “Pearl Harbor” to do similar heavy lifting.
Already in the books as the highest-budgeted film ever greenlit (at $135 million), “Pearl” is drawing comparisons to another pricey historic epic.
“It looks like it could be a ‘Titanic’ kind of draw, with a lot of action and a lot to bring in young girls,” observes Tom Sherak, a partner at Revolution Studios.
“Pearl” didn’t have the budget overages and studio anxiety that “Titanic” did — in fact, producer Jerry Bruckheimer jokes that the two have “only the sinking part” in common.
But the Michael Bay-helmed mega-pic “comes with great expectations, no question about it,” says Disney’s distrib chief Chuck Viane.
The word “expectations” can certainly be applied to “A.I.,” but in the case of Warners’ pic — Spielberg’s first in three years — no one seems to know exactly what to expect. Will it be “E.T.” with snazzier effects? Will it bear any marks of Stanley Kubrick, who originally developed it? Will it vault Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment to greater stardom?
Warners execs have high hopes, since the film’s helmer is so savvy at mixing spectacle with intimacy.
“One of the geniuses of Spielberg,” says WB production prexy Lorenzo di Bonaventura, “is that he takes an event picture and reduces it to a small number of participants — like a few men representing D-Day, or extra-terrestrial life in a suburban house — so that the audience can appreciate the full emotional range of the experience.”
Conversely, helmer Tim Burton is known for taking simple ideas and turning them into lavish, dazzling and twisted packages.
His take on “Planet of the Apes” will launch July 27 — after a lengthy but under-budget shoot, Fox’s Rothman asserts. And fans of the Charlton Heston original, take note: Fox insists Tim Burton’s makeup-heavy pic is not a remake.
“It’s a new film, with a new story,” says Fox co-topper Rothman. “It takes place on another planet, so there’s no Statue of Liberty. The only similarity is the theme of an upside-down civilization where apes are supreme.”