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The Summer's Other Hitting Streak : The major studios are on a record pace, slugging at least 11 films into $100-million territory. The final tally will approach $3 billion.

August 31, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Like Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, hitting 'em out of the park in astonishing numbers, the major studios are this year's boys of summer, sending one film after another roaring beyond the fence.

"It was the perfect summer," concludes Walt Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth. And in Hollywood, perfection consists of popping a record 11 films into $100-million territory, with one more film ("American Pie") expected to reach that number by early fall.

"The great thing about this summer," says Sony Pictures Entertainment distribution head Jeff Blake, "is that most of the favorites did as expected or bigger, and there were great surprises as well."

In fact, at the point at which summer business usually begins to ease off, "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense" punched it back into overdrive.

The favorites, such as "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," topped $400 million. Another predicted hit, "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me," surpassed $200 million. But the surprises truly came out of left field. "Blair Witch" ($140 million final total expected) and the quiet and stealthy "The Sixth Sense" will probably surpass "Austin Powers" before its run is finished.

By the time admissions to Hollywood's favorite pastime (the summer movie binge accounts for about 40% of the industry's annual revenues) reach the final inning over the Labor Day weekend, the final summer of the century is expected to easily outdistance 1998's $2.6-billion record by as much as 20%. The industry best final tally should come within throwing distance of $3 billion. As of Sunday, it was $2.7 billion since Memorial Day.

And while the average price of going to the movies has increased, so has the number of people buying tickets. Since Memorial Day, the actual number of tickets sold has increased 19.5% to 558 million from 483 million, also a record. Average price nationwide is $4.85, up from $4.69 a year ago, according to figures compiled by Exhibitor Relations Co.

Apart from the effects-laden "Phantom Menace" and the early-summer hit "The Mummy," action wasn't where the action was this summer. Most of the top-grossing films were story- and character-driven, many of them moderately budgeted comedies (Mike Myers' "Austin Powers" sequel and Adam Sandler's "Big Daddy"), as well as a couple of edge-of-your-seat scary movies ("The Blair Witch Project," "Sixth Sense").

As the ruinously expensive "Wild Wild West" (budget estimates range as high as $180 million) demonstrated, all the money in the world doesn't guarantee freshness and inventiveness. Taking a cue from last summer's modestly budgeted laugh riot "There's Something About Mary," this year's biggest surprises came in small packages.

"We're getting smarter about budgeting," says Universal chief Stacey Snider, whose studio enjoyed a major rebound this summer with three $100-million hits ("The Mummy," "Notting Hill," and soon, "American Pie"), "which is allowing us to take more chances."

The studios are also becoming more savvy about scheduling. There was a great deal of shuffling with movie lineups, most of it to good effect. Universal wisely countered the predicted monster hit "Phantom Menace" with "Notting Hill"--while all the other studios were playing duck and cover--scoring solidly with the female and date-night audience. Then, by dropping "American Pie" back to midsummer, Universal was able to build up buzz on the raunchy surprise-hit comedy and capitalize on the lucrative summer recess period.

Disney shifted "The Sixth Sense" from early fall into late August and then up another two more weeks, almost getting in harm's way when another creepy-crawly, "The Blair Witch Project," took off. But curiously, "Sixth Sense" actually benefited from "Blair," as audiences were still hungry for bigger scares. As with the astounding "Blair Witch," "Sixth Sense" enjoyed little or no advance buzz (it didn't have "Blair's" Web buildup), becoming the biggest sleeper of summer's sterling second half.

There were other, milder surprises such as "American Pie," "The Haunting," "Inspector Gadget" and "The Thomas Crown Affair," all of which performed better than anticipated. Perhaps in reaction to the overkill "Size Does Matter" marketing ballyhoo that preceded last summer's disappointing "Godzilla," this might be called the summer of anti-hype, according to Tom Sherak, senior executive at 20th Century Fox. "We toned it down a bit this year," says Sherak, "because I think people sensed we were hyping ourselves to death and then couldn't live up to it." Even the "Phantom Menace" marketing campaign was restrained. The media shouldered most of the film's promotion--and that was free. Only "Austin Powers" seemed to be awash in ostentatious marketing tie-ins, though most of the witty Virgin ads dovetailed nicely with the central character's bad-boy comic appeal. But both those films had built-in recognition.

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