YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Company Town | THE BIZ

Formula Movies Made for a Dull, if Profitable, Summer

August 08, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Hollywood played it safe this summer, relying heavily on the formulaic and derivative movies that are the workhorses of the business.

Blame it on the increased corporatization of the artistic endeavor, executive suites populated with bean counters who fear risk. Or dismiss it simply as a mediocre year. The bottom line is that the studios made some money, but no one hit the jackpot.

When the box-office receipts from the summer derby are tallied over the next few weeks, total revenues will undoubtedly fall short of last summer's record $3 billion. But this is still expected to be the second-richest summer ever, with estimated revenues of $2.7 billion or more.

Regardless of their soft landing, the studios could find themselves both safe and sorry.

Attendance appears to be off 10% or more from the previous summer, depending on how much the average ticket price rose, according to Paul Dergarabedian, head of the box-office tracking service Exhibitor Relations Co.

The good-enough crop of movies failed to ignite audiences the way last year's early-summer release "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace" left them panting for more and "The Blair Witch Project" and "The Sixth Sense" kept them coming back.

"The truth is, there's a huge, hungry audience out there and the movies were just pretty good. Nobody got killed. Nothing really broke through. It was the most formulaic summer in years," observes Joe Roth, who recently launched the independent entertainment venture Revolution Studios.

Roth should know. As Walt Disney Co.'s former studio chief, he green-lighted this summer's quintessential formula action movie, "Gone in 60 Seconds."

That movie, which was a hit along with other studio offerings such as 20th Century Fox's "Big Momma's House," Universal Studios' "The Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" and Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm," proved once again that cliched comedies, action movies and sequels are still in vogue. So, by the way, are wow-me special-effects vehicles like Fox's "X-Men" and Columbia Pictures' "Hollow Man," which opened last weekend with more than $26 million in ticket sales.

The summer also showed that even a copycat movie like "Road Trip" can do respectable business despite a lack of the originality and box-office prowess of last summer's raunchy comedy hit "American Pie."

Audiences just want to be scared: "What Lies Beneath" and "Hollow Man." And they won't miss an opportunity to send up a favorite genre: "Scary Movie."

Yes, stars still make a difference, if they're in the right movie. Witness Tom Cruise in the muddled "Mission: Impossible 2," Mel Gibson in the widely panned "The Patriot" and Jim Carrey in the distasteful "Me, Myself and Irene." Yet both "Patriot" and "Irene" fell short of expectations. Both were expected to easily gross $150 million in U.S. theaters.

And--surprise, surprise--kids still love to go to the multiplex. They flocked to Disney's "Dinosaur" even though it lacked strong storytelling, and they loved DreamWorks SKG's "Chicken Run" though some of the humor was over their heads.

The summer started out strong enough.

Many Hollywood types said they found Ridley Scott's stylish and theatrical period picture "Gladiator," starring Russell Crowe, to be a thrilling moviegoing experience.

"It was all downhill from there," one top studio executive remarked.

The DreamWorks/Universal co-production was the second-highest-grossing film of the summer, with more than $180 million to date, behind Paramount Pictures' "Mission: Impossible" sequel with more than $200 million. But it's still not all good news. Those movies, which are sure to be profitable and have huge long-term library value, each cost more than $100 million to make and tens of millions more to market.

DreamWorks scored at the box office with its expensive thriller "What Lies Beneath." It's questionable, however, whether the company will profit after the film's two stars and director take their huge cuts and the rest of the pie is divided with co-financing partner 20th Century Fox.

The real financial success story of this summer has got to be Miramax/Dimension's parody "Scary Movie." The film cost just $19 million to produce and is likely to gross $150 million domestically.

It was fresh in every sense of the word and stood in stark contrast to the rest of the summer.

Though Hollywood pundits predicted this pop-culture sendup of everything from horror and teen flicks to TV ads would be a hit, few expected it would open at $42.3 million--the biggest debut ever for an R-rated movie--and gross more than $100 million.

Bob Weinstein, who runs Dimension Films, the low-budget genre label of Miramax Films, attributes the success of "Scary Movie" in breaking the $100-million barrier to its being a broad-appeal comedy rather than a horror-slasher movie aimed only at teens. Dimension's hit teen horror films "Scream" and "Scream 2" each grossed around $100 million, and "Scream 3" took in nearly $90 million.

Los Angeles Times Articles