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Studios Try to Turn Up Box Office to '99 Degree

May 09, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

Though the summer movie season has just begun to heat up, Hollywood moguls are already sweating, with more than $1 billion in production and marketing dollars riding on the season's most anticipated movies.

Last weekend's huge $34-million opening for "Gladiator," a $110-million co-production from DreamWorks SKG and Universal Pictures, has studios hoping the stage is set for a profitable summer.

Undoubtedly, Ridley Scott's Roman epic has kicked off one of the most competitive moviegoing seasons in years, with offerings that are full of blood, guts and testosterone and short on romance.

The bad news for studios is that, no matter how successful the action flicks (such as "Gladiator," "M:I-2," "The Patriot" and "Gone in Sixty Seconds") and no-brainer comedies ("Road Trip," "Nutty Professor II: The Klumps" and "Me, Myself & Irene") or offbeat animated features ("Dinosaur," "Chicken Run" and "Titan A.E."), they will have a tough time topping last year's bell-ringing $3-billion summer box office.

"The biggest challenge of summer will be coming up with the more than $700 million generated by 'Star Wars' and 'The Sixth Sense.' Those are two big sets of shoes to fill," says Sony Pictures' distribution chief Jeff Blake.

"Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace," which grossed more than $430 million, opened last summer's box-office derby, and "The Sixth Sense," a huge unexpected hit at $293 million, was its late summer bookend. A record dozen movies earned more than $100 million, a list that also included New Line Cinema's "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me" ($205.4 million), Disney's animated feature "Tarzan" ($171 million), Universal's "The Mummy," which opened to a whopping $43.3 million (ultimately reaching $155.2 million), Artisan Entertainment's "The Blair Witch Project" ($140.5 million) and Universal's teen comedy "American Pie" ($102 million).

The good news, according to Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks box office returns, is that the audience for movies expanded significantly last summer to make May, June, July and August all record months.

Hollywood executives are betting that the new habit will hold and make summer 2000 huge. Summer moviegoing, thanks to the kids being out of school for three months, dominates the business and accounts for about 40% of the year's total box-office revenue.

Hollywood executives concur that the big hits of summer 2000 are likely to include "Gladiator," starring Russell Crowe; "M:I-2," with John Woo directing Tom Cruise; "The Patriot," starring Mel Gibson as an American Revolution warrior; Paul Verhoeven's sci-fi chiller "The Hollow Man;" and Wolfgang Petersen's "The Perfect Storm," starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg.

But for this summer to come close to matching last year, says Blake, "You need something more than the obvious favorites to come through--like 'Sixth Sense,' 'American Pie' and 'Blair Witch Project' did last year. And everybody has candidates."

Blake thinks Sony's candidate is "Loser," a comedy directed by Amy Heckerling and starring "American Pie's" Jason Biggs and "American Beauty's" Mena Suvari as two New York college misfits who find each other.

Executives say other potential sleepers include Touchstone Pictures' romantic comedy "Coyote Ugly" and "Shanghai Noon," an action comedy starring Jackie Chan; Disney's "The Kid," in which Bruce Willis meets himself as an 8-year-old; Paramount's comedy "I Was Made To Love Her," directed by "American Pie's" Chris and Paul Weitz and starring comedian Chris Rock; and DreamWorks' raunchy comedy "Road Trip," about a college student who enlists his buddies to try to intercept his videotaped infidelity before it reaches his long-distance girlfriend.

Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider agrees that this summer provides "a lot of action and very little romance."

And most of those action movies, not the least of which is "Gladiator," which Universal co-financed and is releasing internationally, offer a lot of violence.

It was not long ago that Hollywood came under fire for glorifying violence. "I feel like our mandate is to make quality entertainment that communicates and conforms to a rating system that advises our consumers," Snider says unapologetically.

Warner Bros.' blockbuster "The Matrix," Snider says, had "a big impact on our thinking that the action movie isn't dead. It's about how you responsibly transform it into something that's viscerally thrilling."

This year's Fourth of July weekend promises plenty of box-office fireworks with the opening of two big action movies, Columbia Pictures' "The Patriot" and Warner Bros.' "The Perfect Storm."

"It's going to be a real double punch with totally different kinds of movies," predicts Dergarabedian.

Alan Horn, the new head of Warner Bros., said he and his colleagues "will be disappointed" if "Perfect Storm" doesn't gross more than $100 million--which is what the movie cost before marketing.

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