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An August Challenge: Take a Chance

Movies * Why are there often so many late- summer surprises at the box office? Perhaps the studios (and the pundits) spend too much time worshiping the conventional wisdom.

August 05, 2000|GENE SEYMOUR | NEWSDAY

At about this time a year ago, there were no fewer than seven movies that hadcracked the $100 million barrier at Ye Olde Box Office. As of last weekend, there were six: "Mission: Impossible 2," "Dinosaur," "Gladiator," "Big Momma's House," "The Perfect Storm" and "Scary Movie." "X-Men" should join their ranks without breaking a sweat, while "Gone in 60 Seconds" may just barely stagger over the hump, huffing and wheezing from the exertion.

Now that it's August, you'd think Hollywood would be feeling pretty good about itself, given such apparent Lance Armstrong-style consistency in the summer-movie marketplace. But from the industry pundits, online and offline, one senses instead of smug triumph an almost peevish bewilderment with the way things have been going so far this summer.

The reasons for this are as old as silent comedy, if not as moribund. People who make and sell movies--as well as those who write about them--share the same hopeless wish for those aforementioned "things" to go as planned. And by "things," I mean that all the movies that were expected to do well back in June would be doing really well by July, while what remained of studio product would succeed simply by being caught in the undertow of the blockbusters' tsunami.

Which almost always never happens, though last summer's crazy up-and-down parade of jack-in-the-box monsters ("The Matrix," "The Sixth Sense"), noisy 100-pound gorillas ("Star Wars: Episode One--The Phantom Menace," "The Mummy," "Austin Powers 2: The Spy Who Shagged Me," both Julia Roberts comedies--"Runaway Bride" and "Notting Hill") and oddball phenoms ("The Blair Witch Project," "South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut") made it seem that way. At the end of that summer, there were 12 movies making $100 million or more, including all the above-mentioned products except "South Park."

Yet even after such a golden season, one heard distributors and theater owners complaining about how "soft" the numbers were and how difficult it would be to build long-term momentum from even the biggest successes. Rough translation: We can't control the market the way we'd like to and so we can't stop being scared and uncomfortable.

It was, perhaps, the dizzying unpredictability of last summer's crop that made these guys even more apprehensive than usual about this summer's releases. Expectations, in general, were low and stayed that way right up till the one-two openings of "The Patriot" (June 28) and "The Perfect Storm" (June 30).

The former was considered a no-brainer lay-up, whatever the critical reaction, because of the presence of Mel Gibson and the direction of Roland ("Independence Day") Emmerich. The latter, boasting little more than George Clooney and very scary water scenes, was expected to pull up the rear, though not by much. As most of you know, the exact reverse happened, and "Storm" overwhelmed "Patriot." The pundits looked silly again.

So silly, in fact, that they've been awfully quick to apply the "L-for-Loser" label on "Patriot's" red-white-and-blue visage, even though its $83 million take thus far would be coveted by "The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle" ($21 million) or "Shaft" ($66 million) or even "Me, Myself & Irene"--which, despite its own high, prerelease expectations, isn't expected to get much more than $80 million by summer's end.

Has the summer, thus, matched the low-ball Cassandras' worst fears? Well, hold on. There's this strange month on the movie calendar called August to get through. No one talks much about August in the trades. Nobody does "August Preview" packages in the slicks. Yet it's the one month of the year when strange things can and do happen in the movie universe.

"The Sixth Sense" opened with relatively little fanfare last August, and weeks after school started in September was still eating everything in sight. Seven Augusts ago, it was "The Fugitive" that pulled up the rear of that summer's movie parade and made people forget what had come before it.

It's a measure of "Sixth Sense's" stunning performance that some August movies are being advanced as summer surprises, notably such off-the-wall sci-fi-horror-fantasy paraphernalia as "The Cell," scheduled for Aug. 18, or "Hollow Man," which opened Friday. There's also the customary dust being kicked up over Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys" and producer Jerry Bruckheimer's "Coyote Ugly," both of which also opened Friday.

I'd like to be able to play this pick-the-winner game with the same conviction as the trades. But I think there's something dopey--and not in a fun, Farrelly brothers kind of way--about handicapping surprise hits. This isn't the first time I've asked this question, but here goes: Hasn't it occurred to those in charge of the major studios that the whole reason hits catch them by surprise is that they're, well, different from what you, me and everyone else expects? And that taking chances on what's different is what keeps people coming out to the multiplexes to see what the buzz is all about?

Those questions, too, are as old as the silents. But the technology that offers many more entertainment choices to consumers gets newer by the minute. And if theaters still want to compete, they're going to have to stop relying on the familiar guides for success (e.g. "Big Stars Mean Big Bucks") and urge the studios and distributors to take some chances.

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