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Something Familiar This Way Comes

In a potentially turbulent year, the studios are betting on what they hope will be Sure Things--even more remakes, sequels and epics than usual.

January 21, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | Richard Natale is a regular contributor to Calendar

With the curtain going up on 2001 amid rising costs, labor uncertainty and decreasing ticket sales despite "record" box office, Hollywood is betting unusually heavily this year on so-called "tent-pole" titles, many of them sequels or big star vehicles.

Preordained "event" movies such as "Hannibal," "Pearl Harbor," "Planet of the Apes," "Lord of the Rings" (the first of a trilogy) and "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" lead an unusually heavy lineup of high-profile projects as the motion picture industry struggles to seduce the occasional moviegoer to theaters more often and push actual ticket sales forward.

"On paper, it looks like a record year," says Paul Dergarabedian of box-office tracking firm Exhibitor Relations. "I've never seen such a preponderance of tent-pole titles from sequels to original films like 'Pearl Harbor,' 'Harry Potter' and 'A.I.' Usually there are fewer, and they're spread out throughout the year. This year, they'll be coming fast and furious," and also heavily clustered in the summer and year-end holiday periods.

While revenue has increased each year for the past nine years, actual admissions have declined somewhat in the last two. And, according to Variety, foreign admissions were down a sharp 10% last year, which is even more worrisome since the major studios have relied on the continued growth of the international market to cover ever-rising costs of production and, especially, marketing.

The benchmark blockbuster gross used to be $100 million, and that's still a good figure for some releases. But these days, event movies cost more than that just to make, plus another $50 million to market, and studios get back only about half of box office revenue in the form of film rentals. Ancillary income from video sales and licensing to broadcast and cable TV networks are crucial too, but first-run theatrical box office is the engine that drives those secondary revenue streams.

As ticket prices increase both here and abroad, audiences other than the most frequent moviegoers are attending only the more highly touted films and waiting for the rest to reach video and DVD or television. So the industry is hoping that by increasing the number of "must-see" films with name recognition (such as sequels) or A-list stars, there'll be more movies that gross between $300 million and $500 million worldwide.

Last year, such films as "M:I-2," "Gladiator," "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Dinosaur" and "The Perfect Storm" met those worldwide goals, and hopes are pinned on several major films in the coming year to follow in their footsteps.

A Tough Year to Predict

Every year, former 20th Century Fox senior executive Tom Sherak, who is now a principal at Revolution Studios, handicaps what he thinks the top five movies will be. "I can't do that this year. You have to stretch out the list to at least seven--possibly more." As the last few weeks of 2000 and the first weeks of 2001 have proved, the adage about the box office being able to expand only so much doesn't seem to apply anymore. Part of it had to do with good films being released, says Sherak. The threat of a recession also traditionally works in the industry's favor. "When the economy turns downward, people head for the movies."

According to Dergarabedian, the first of the many potential blockbusters this year will arrive as early as Feb. 9. That's the day "Hannibal" opens. With Anthony Hopkins reprising his role as the cannibalistic Hannibal Lecter, "Hannibal" is director Ridley Scott's sequel to the 1991 Oscar-winning "The Silence of the Lambs" and the first great hope for a comeback year at MGM.

The studio picked the February release date because of an industry theory that, in various ways, lightning strikes twice. "The date is exactly the 10th anniversary of the first film's release," explains MGM Vice Chairman Chris McGurk. "Hannibal" has been generating strong pre-release buzz based on what McGurk describes as a stylistic departure "that takes this beyond the realm of the typical sequel." Another change for "Hannibal" is Julianne Moore, who steps into the shoes of FBI agent Clarice Starling, a role that garnered Jodie Foster an Academy Award the first time around.

An unusually high number of films with twos, threes and even 10s ("Jason X," yet another in the never-say-die "Friday the 13th" series) will follow. Summer alone proffers "The Mummy Returns," with Brendan Fraser; "Rush Hour 2," which re-pairs Chris Tucker and Jackie Chan; "Doctor Dolittle 2," with Eddie Murphy and his talking critters; "American Pie 2"; "Scary Movie 2"; as well as "Jurassic Park III." Before that, there'll be "Pokemon 3" and "Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles," the third in the Paul Hogan series.

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