Summer summary: A fish tale

Season challenges B.O. 'truisms'

There are still four weeks left in the summer, but the season’s list of winners and losers is already clearly marked.

It has been a summer of surprises. A lot of “surefire” sequels with costs soaring north of $150 million were upstaged by an animated fish.

Though films’ costs are up, box office is flat and admissions are down. And movie distribs discovered a megawide opening doesn’t always ensure a really big bow.

In a season with a lot of losers, clearly the sorest loser will be conventional wisdom.

Formerly, most B.O. pundits followed one theory: Summer movies will receive a launch so wide that even bad pics can succeed, provided they can hype their way to a big opening weekend.

But after a series of misfires over the last two months, there’s a new theory: Sometimes the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Universal’s “The Hulk,” for example, rang up $62.1 million its first weekend but dipped nearly 70% in its second frame. That’s no way to prop up a tentpole.

Another piece of accepted wisdom that was thrown out: Movie sequels are a safe bet.

This summer showed that when production and advertising costs run high — and with one-week wonders continuing as the norm for the second consecutive summer — movies like “Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” are anything but slamdunks.

Just opening a movie worldwide now costs, on average, a staggering $75 million.

Still, if budget-busting tentpoles and overblown sequels produced a number of theatrical losers this summer, there were also a number of winners.

Those kicking sand in the face of summer’s B.O. weaklings include:

  • Jerry Bruckheimer. He was producer of the top two domestic grossers of a recent weekend — a Hollywood first. Even more notably, both “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl” and “Bad Boys II” appear headed for profitability. (He’ll also field five primetime TV shows this fall.)

  • Steve Jobs’ Pixar: The Mouse House already was sweating over talks to extend its production/distribution pact with Pixar. But the success of “Finding Nemo” has surely boosted the negotiating hand of Jobs, the famously competitive Pixar topper (and, in his spare time, CEO of Apple Computers).

  • Female empowerment. Ten years ago, women were on the sidelines in summer actioners (“Jurassic Park,” “The Fugitive,” etc.). This year, femmes were kicking butt in “The Matrix Reloaded,” “X2,” “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” and “Charlie’s Angels,” and women were front and center in diverse fare such as “Legally Blonde 2: Red, White and Blonde,” “How to Deal,” “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” and “Bend It Like Beckham.”

  • May launches: So far, four pics have passed the $200 million mark: “Nemo,” “Matrix,” “Bruce Almighty” and “X2.” All launched in May.

  • Universal: The company may be going through turmoil (see separate story), but even “Hulk” hasn’t stopped its summer surge in B.O. After an acceptable 7% market share last summer at this time, it’s jumped to 19%.

  • Disney: The Mouse House is battling U for summer dominance. The company enjoys a 50% split on “Nemo,” and its “Pirates of the Caribbean” is hot.

  • “28 Days Later”: The sleeper hit has produced multiple winners. Helmer Danny Boyle has shown his “Trainspotting” success was not a fluke, and Fox Searchlight extended bragging rights as Hollywood’s hot specialty unit, following earlier crossover success with “Bend It Like Beckham.”

“Neither film had obvious strength in the American market,” Fox Searchlight distrib boss Steve Gilula says. “But we believed both had very strong playability and people would support the pictures if we could get people to see them.”

To spread word of mouth, Searchlight offered dozens of “Beckham” screenings, while on “28 Days,” an Internet-heavy campaign featured extended trailers on pic’s Web sites. Both ploys worked perfectly.

At Disney, execs are understandably more elated at the success of “Nemo” than worried about its impact on talks with Pixar.

And there’s already talk of a “Pirates” sequel — quite a development since it was considered a gamble to base such a big-budget pic on a Disneyland attraction, however popular.

“Neither of these movies was made for a niche audience,” Mouse’s distrib prexy Chuck Viane says. “They were made to play across all segments, and they delivered on that promise. The originality of the movies made them stand out. If you tell a good story, that wins out over anything else.”

That overachieving duo has the Mouse giving Universal an unexpected run for the summer box office crown, though U is still a big favorite to take the summer sweepstakes, barring a complete collapse of “Seabiscuit.”

U’s horse tale broke solidly over the final frame in July, and distrib sees pic as a likely leggy performer based on the usual pattern for adult-oriented pics.

But, alas, it wouldn’t be a B.O. summer without a number of losses offering the opportunity for a few lessons learned.

Those attending the school of hard knocks include:

  • DreamWorks: After nabbing a 5% market share last summer, the company has dropped to less than 1% for the comparable period (see chart). “Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas” is struggling to reach even $30 million domestic. Following Disney disaster “Treasure Planet,” many feel the pic reps yet another nail in the coffin of traditional cel animation, though others suggest it simply shows once again that targeting a tooner to young boys is often ill-advised. (However, DreamWorks has some solutions; see separate story.)

  • Harrison Ford: After “Six Days, Seven Nights” and “K-19: The Widowmaker,” his summer vehicle this year was “Hollywood Homicide.” Oops.

  • “From Justin to Kelly:” 20th Century Fox viewed the low-budget romp as counterprogramming, never figuring the musical for huge B.O. But its failure to elicit any theatrical interest demonstrated anew how dangerous it is to try to translate TV success (in this case, Fox’s “American Idol”) to the bigscreen.

  • Execs seeking easy answers: They’re big losers because they have to rethink their plans. Sequels can succeed, but only when tough calls are made on talent, scripts and budgets — just as with any other movie.

  • And the biggest loser of the summer 2003: Hollywood, whose downbeat admissions data means the season’s underwhelming film fare has managed to turn off masses of prospective moviegoers.

Industrywide B.O. headed into August flat with last summer, and ticket-price hikes since then mean admissions actually have slipped.

Some cite a tough comparison with last year’s record summer, but the seasonal slump will prompt a gut check for more than a couple studio execs.