H’wood hoping for a big green B.O. machine

'Passion' payday masks horrible year

This article was updated at 7:58 p.m.

Hollywood needs a hit. Badly.

With DreamWorks set to open “Shrek 2” today, studio execs are hoping the toon sequel will inject some life into 2004’s lackluster box office, which, if not for “The Passion of the Christ,” would be down nearly 12% from 2003.

“The Passion” payday, some execs say, masks what has otherwise been a miserable year at the box office. “Passion” was such an anomaly — a phenomenon of a picture that is unlikely to be duplicated — that its gross shouldn’t be included when measuring overall health of the box office.

Backing out “The Passion’s” $369 million from Nielsen EDI’s year-to-date box office figure of $2.905 billion would leave just $2.537 billion. At this point in 2003, box office stood at $2.872 billion.

(Some execs argue that having an unpredictable hit like “Passion” has become so predictable — i.e., “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Blair Witch Project” — that there’s no reason to take the “Passion” cash out of tallies.)

Another cause of concern has been the paucity of pics to earn $100 million during the calendar year. Through this past Sunday, the 20th weekend of the year, just two 2004 releases, “The Passion” and “50 First Dates” (with a $120 million cume) had crossed that threshold. Just one holiday holdover has brought in $100 million since the start of the year, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.”

At the same point in 2003, Hollywood had seven titles earn beyond the $100 million line: “Anger Management,” “Bringin’ Down the House,” “How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days,” “X2,” “Daredevil” and holiday holdovers “Chicago” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

In 2002, there were six $100 million pics through the first 20 weeks; in 2001, there were seven. You have to go back to 2000 to find as poor a year as 2004, when at this point only two pics, “Erin Brockovich” and “Gladiator,” had reached $100 million.

“While we’re ahead year-to-year, the advantage is really attributable to ‘The Passion’ and its ability to pull in more people who don’t normally go to movies,” said Dan Marks, exec VP at Nielsen EDI. “Without it, we’d probably be trailing by a good margin.”

Echoing the hopes of many in Hollywood, Marks added that a summer sked which includes some of the industry’s most potent franchises, led by “Shrek 2,” Warner Bros.’ third “Harry Potter” installment and “Spider-Man 2” from Columbia, could rescue the year’s box office out of its slump.

Execs — and not just those at DreamWorks — are counting on “Shrek 2,” which debuts in 3,737 locations today and expands on Friday, to kickstart a summer season that has so far gotten off slowly.

“Everyone roots for their own movies first, but at some point you have to root for the business as a whole,” said Jeff Blake, Sony Pictures Entertainment vice chair. “You want reassurance that people are going to movies in a big way.”

“The industry needs it,” said Bruce Snyder, distrib prexy at 20th Century Fox. “When people compute their annual number, they’ve got ‘Shrek’ plugged in as a very big number.”

How big a number “Shrek 2” opens to is a difficult question to answer. Pic, which has strong family appeal, is opening on a Wednesday while almost all schools are still in session.

Last year’s animated hit “Finding Nemo,” from Pixar and Walt Disney, opened to $70 million, but that was the weekend after Memorial Day, when nearly a third of the country’s schools were on vacation, said DreamWorks distrib prexy Jim Tharp.

Further complicating projections, the original “Shrek” opened on a Friday.

“It’s wild,” Tharp said. “I just don’t know where we’ll end up.”

DreamWorks expects the pic to do much better than the original, which opened a week before Memorial Day in 2001 with $42.3 million. The next weekend, with the benefit of good word of mouth that broadened its aud beyond families, the original took in another $55.2 million.

“The research shows really high awareness and definite interest,” said Tharp.

The industry needs something to bring people to theaters. Even including “The Passion,” film admissions for the year are down 2.9% against 2003, according to Exhibitor Relations, 500 million vs. 515 million. Excluding “The Passion,” admissions would be off 14.4% from last year.

Studio execs have several explanations for the overall poor box office picture:

  • A crowded marketplace. In all, 56 pics have bowed on 1,000 screens or more this year. The previous high was 50 in 2002; last year there were just 47 releases that wide.

“What seems to be happening is that the amount of runs and the cannibalization of movies seems to be at an all-time high,” said Revolution’s Tom Sherak. “A lot of the pictures should be doing more, but they seem to be getting old quicker.”

  • Emphasis on opening weekend. Even though cumes are down, 2004 has seen a series of big openings. In April, for instance, a record five pics opened at higher than $20 million.

“It’s been really easy with the lack of head-on competition to get a big opening,” said an exec who declined to be named. “What’s been difficult is to sustain those openings.”

  • The Oscar shift. With the Academy Awards moved up and “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” dominating the kudos, there was no “Chicago,” “Beautiful Mind” or “Traffic” to emerge at the box office in the first quarter this year.

  • Quality. While no one would admit to it on the record, execs across the industry said the biggest factor has been mediocre pictures.

“The movie business, more than any other industry, is product-driven,” said another studio exec. “A lot of people won’t go to theaters if the product isn’t there.”

(Anthony D’Alessandro contributed to this report.)