Sleepers & weepers

Summer sends mixed messages as longshots hit paydirt while some tentpoles disappoint

Summer sends mixed messages as longshots hit paydirt while some tentpoles disappoint.

This is the moment of summer when Hollywood takes a breath and tries to elicit some meaning from the weekend-to-weekend box office chaos.

To accomplish this, the shockwaves must first be absorbed.

Yes, an expensive Jerry Bruckheimer summer action movie, “King Arthur,” will struggle to get past $50 million domestic, and a Spielberg summer movie, “Terminal,” also proved wobbly.

Yes, a teen romp called “Sleepover” actually managed to open badly and still plummet 72% its second week.

And, yes, the Internet geeks weren’t genuflecting either over “I, Robot” or “Catwoman” (negative geek-buzz always makes the studios nervous), but the Will Smith movie at least opened big-time at $52.2 million.

The ground was also supposed to be shifting under the sequels business, but “Spidey 2” still managed to levitate itself into outer space.

It was a summer of surprises for sleepers as well as tentpoles.

“Dodgeball,” a dopey guy flick whose script had knocked around for quite a while, shot past $100 million.

“Mean Girls,” meanwhile, was not only encroaching on $85 million in the U.S., but is also defying the rules of chick flicks by rolling up impressive numbers overseas.

“The Notebook” continued to build strong word of mouth in that most rarified category — a quality tear-jerker. And “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the movie no distributor wanted, became the highest grossing documentary of all time.

Hence, the sleeper list refuted tidy generalizations — much to the frustration of studios eager to find a new success formula.

Some movies did play true to form.

The “Harry Potter” franchise continued to be bountiful, and Warner Bros. did itself proud by gambling on an outside candidate, Alfonso Cuaron, to shepherd it.

“Shrek 2” seemed gold-plated from its moment of inception — it’s already glided past $700 million worldwide. Almost every studio bid for “Day After Tomorrow,” and it’s passed $527 million globally.

Some wannabe tentpoles, however, needed a major jolt from the overseas audience to achieve their expectations.

“Van Helsing” grossed $120 million in the U.S., but gleaned another $150 million abroad. “Troy” did a respectable $132 million domestic, but its foreign afterburners generated an astonishing $350 million.

The overseas audience, however, did not rally behind “Around the World in 80 Days” (U.S. gross: $23 million) or “The Alamo” (U.S.: $22 million).

And while Buena Vista had hopes for “King Arthur” overseas, its limp performance in the U.S. will surely inhibit its impact (“King Arthur” did not employ the macho day-and-date worldwide opening pursued by “Shrek 2” or “Troy”).

While the jury’s still out on a few important movies (the still-to-come “Collateral,” “The Village” and “Manchurian Candidate” and the just opened “Bourne Supremacy” and “Catwoman”), some tentative conclusions about summer ’04 can still be advanced.

Total grosses were up almost 10% over summer ’03, but year-to-date numbers climbed only 6.2% and admissions were up slightly. Hence, higher ticket prices, not brilliant product, constituted the key to the lofty grosses.

Indeed, were it not for Mel Gibson and Michael Moore, the year would surely be a major disappointment. The two filmmakers who had the most doors slammed in their faces thus saved Hollywood’s butt in 2004.

What “take-away” do studio hierarchs scrape from all this?

A few argue resolutely that, despite the soaring risks, the tentpoles saved the day. A few others cite the sleepers as their saviors.

One CEO put it this way: “I can see why Kirk Kerkorian has decided to pack it in and focus on Las Vegas. At least he’s admitting it’s all about the big gamble.”

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