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Summer Box Office Is a Scorcher

Movies: The top 10 films released since May are expected to generate at least $1.5 billion in the U.S.

July 09, 1999|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

What do you say about a summer movie season that has already produced at least seven films that will gross more than $100 million, including one that should reach $200 million and another that's heading for $400 million? In Hollywood, the punch line is: Too bad it's already half over.

For the major studios, summer 1999 is working like a charm so far with the top 10 films released since the beginning of May--now considered the start of the summer movie season--expected to generate at least $1.5 billion in the U.S. alone. Even better news, the total cost of those 10 films was less than half that amount. Virtually every studio has had a $100-million grosser so far.

The mid-summer box-office lessons: Comedies are king, whether for young audiences ("Austin Powers," "Big Daddy") or older ones ("Notting Hill"); sequels can be box-office magic ("Star Wars," "Austin"); Disney is still king of the animation jungle ("Tarzan"); and even a misfire ("Wild Wild West") can make $100 million if it has Will Smith in it.

The month of June was the best ever for the movie business, which has already crossed the $3-billion mark for the year, almost half of that since the earlier-than-ever summer began. The success of the season, says Jeff Blake, head of distribution at Sony Pictures ("Big Daddy"), is based on "a real diversity of product, terrific movie stars, and films that appeal across the board."

The other contributing factor, he says, is the proliferation of megaplexes providing as many as 30 screens that can show hit movies around the clock. With so many theaters, Blake says, "you can have several hits at a time because there are enough good, quality houses to see them in."

And because these complexes are larger, blockbuster films such as "Phantom Menace" and "Austin Powers" stay around longer and are able to maximize their potential, which wasn't true only a couple of summers ago.

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The star system came roaring back this summer. Many of the top-grossing films in the first half of last summer were concept driven--"Deep Impact," "Godzilla" and even "Armageddon" (though Bruce Willis certainly helped). But this summer's first half is like a who's who of box-office draws, young and old--Adam Sandler, Julia Roberts, Sean Connery, Mike Myers, John Travolta and Will Smith.

All the top movies of the summer so far have debuted in 2,500 theaters or more with opening weekends ranging from $20 million to more than $60 million. Even with the complex arrangement of profit participation for these major stars, the studios made some cost-effective films that minimized their front-end exposure. For instance, if the $34-million "Big Daddy" had not performed up to expectations, Sony Pictures would not have had to sweat it out like they did on last year's "Godzilla," which cost upward of $130 million to make.

Of the big summer movies, the only potential money loser is "Wild Wild West," which Warner Bros. says cost $105 million, but which others in the industry claim is closer to $175 million.

Ironically, at the outset of the season, there was a great deal of nervousness. Many feared that "Phantom Menace" would be "a black hole for everyone else," noted Mark Shmuger, marketing chief at Universal ("The Mummy," "Notting Hill").

But not everyone bought into that logic and instead worked around the mid-May launch of the preordained blockbuster. And the studios that got into the game early mostly succeeded.

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Fox, which also distributed "Phantom Menace," kicked off the summer extra early with the Connery/Catherine Zeta-Jones film "Entrapment" on April 30, which along with Universal's "Notting Hill" (released over Memorial Day) was gobbled up by adult audiences hungry for alternatives to the kiddie-friendly sci-fi spectacular.

Staking out what has now become summer's official launch, Universal laid claim to the first weekend in May with "The Mummy." And as with Warner Bros.' "Twister" and Paramount's "Deep Impact" in years past, "Mummy" established a beachhead and was able to ride out the "Phantom Menace" offensive.

"It sends out a message that early May is clearly a time to release an event movie to jump-start the summer," Shmuger says. Along with "Notting Hill," "The Mummy" broke a long dry spell for Universal, whose only major hit in recent memory was last Christmas' "Patch Adams."

By and large, the other studios steered clear of May (and in the case of Warner Bros. even June), which kept the number of major releases down during the first half of the summer, allowing each new film its moment in the sun.

"Everybody is happy," says Disney distribution executive Chuck Viane. "If exhibitors had one complaint it was that there wasn't enough product."

But that won't be the case in the second half of summer.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

Biggest Summer Grossers

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Current gross/ Movie Total (millions) "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" $373 "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" $172 "Tarzan" $111 "The Mummy" $148 "Big Daddy" $90 "Notting Hill" $98 "Wild Wild West" $50 "The General's Daughter" $67 "Entrapment" $85

Estimate of Movie final gross "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" $400 "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" $200 "Tarzan" $180 "The Mummy" $150 "Big Daddy" $150 "Notting Hill" $110 "Wild Wild West" $105 "The General's Daughter" $90 "Entrapment" $85

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