Spree of threes defies doomsayers

Summer box office proves analysts were wrong

On roughly this date two summers ago, several well-known pundits were lecturing us on the imminent demise of the movie theater. Led by the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, a fusillade of dire box office analyses were delivered to us, explaining that the downturn of summer ’05 reflected a permanent change in the habits of the entertainment consumer.

So here’s a snapshot of the movie business, summer ’07: Box office for the summer is up 10% in the U.S. Some 11 movies already have grossed more than $100 million in the U.S. and four have passed $300 million.

So what happened to the gloom-and-doom club? Suddenly they’ve gone silent.

My intent here is not to needle the self-styled media gurus. In retrospect, their conclusions were valid. It’s just that they were a decade or perhaps a generation ahead of reality.

Here’s what happened in the summer of ’05: Weekend after weekend, box office results dipped below the year before as a succession of films bombed. Many had held out promise, such as “Cinderella Man,” “Kingdom of Heaven” and “Van Helsing.” By June, however, the weighty pronouncements were pouring in. According to the Los Angeles Times, “consumers are leaving one of America’s greatest pastimes.” The New York Times quoted New Line’s Bob Shaye stating, “I believe it’s a cumulative thing, a seismic evolution in people’s habits.” Paul Dergarabedian, then of Exhibitor Relations, referred darkly to “a cultural shift,” and when Disney’s Bob Iger casually said he was pondering a reduction in the DVD window, John Fithian of NATO called it “a death threat” to his industry. Sony announced it was sufficiently disturbed by the downtown that it was financing a major study of changing consumer tastes.

Not everyone signed on to the gloom-and-doom club. “Everyone keeps saying it’s the worst of times, but it seems fine to me,” said Fox’s irrepressible Tom Rothman.

This column agreed with Rothman. We pointed out at the time that the 2005 totals would actually have exceeded 2004 if that onetime anomaly, “The Passion of the Christ,” had been taken out of the equation. Several major films turned out to be disappointments in ’05, we acknowledged, but that didn’t warrant cosmic depression.

Which brings us back to the remarkable, and in some ways, counterintuitive, boom of summer ’07. The very sequels that seemed to be sputtering a year or two ago suddenly are clicking — indeed three-quel fever seems to be pervasive. Most of the three-quels set opening-weekend records, three have passed the $300 million line in the U.S. and abroad and “Spider-Man 3” and “The Bourne Ultimatum (also a three-quel) are outperforming their previous iterations worldwide.

Disney’s Chuck Viane told Pam McClintock, Variety‘s box office analyst, “I don’t ever recall a summer having this many sequels. Some ‘threes’ have been cursed in the past, but nobody feels cursed this summer.”

It’s easy to forget that past third editions had often led to pathetic results — remember “Poltergeist” and “Jaws”? “The Matrix Revolutions” was also a disappointment.

So what happened to the supposed shifts in consumer habits? Why are all these kids, who are supposed to be married to their iPods and computers, lining up at the multiplexes? Don’t they realize Hollywood product is an anachronism?

The answer, of course, is that while these evolutionary changes are indeed taking place, a good movie — even a spurt of lively three-quels — can send everyone back to their earlier fixations.

The message for the pundits? Give it a rest. Things don’t change that quickly. If you don’t believe that, look at Iraq.

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