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News Analysis

Summer's Films Pine for Two-Timing Moviegoers

July 11, 2001|RICHARD NATALE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With the summer movie season half over, Hollywood can bask in the glow of several solid--and two spectacular--hits. But attendance levels indicate only a modest sense of satisfaction for moviegoers, who seem to like the films well enough--but not enough to see them again.

Summer has long been the industry's most important season because of the level of repeat business possible when school is out and adults are on vacation. People are going to the movies this summer, but they don't seem to be going back as often, the way they did last holiday season when attendance figures skyrocketed because of movies like "Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas" and "Cast Away." In a downbeat economy, movies are still a relative bargain, but unless the movies truly deliver, average ticket prices are high enough (almost $6) to keep audiences from returning for a second helping.

Of course, there are exceptions: the two $200-million-grossing films, "Shrek" and "The Mummy Returns." And although "Pearl Harbor" may not be the monster hit Disney hoped for, it should gross close to $200 million domestically.

Since May 4 (when "Mummy Returns" debuted) the box office is running about 4.5% ahead of last year, and 7% in front of the record summer of 1999, according to Exhibitor Relations, a box-office tracing firm. But after adjusting ticket prices for inflation, attendance is only 1% ahead of last year and 4% behind 1999 when more than 320 million tickets had already been sold.

There have been no all-out disasters and one or two surprises this summer, most prominently "The Fast and the Furious," a low- profile racing film that Universal astutely marketed to the action audience, turning it into a $100-million-plus grosser. The "prestige" film of the season so far has been Steven Spielberg's "A.I. Artificial Intelligence," which he assumed from the late Stanley Kubrick. The hybrid of sensibilities has performed only respectably, although the film looks to do better overseas.

The rate of descent of heavily marketed movies seems to get steeper every week. Debuts of $40 million have been almost commonplace--as have second-weekend declines of 50% or more. Movie marketing appears to have reached a level of sophistication that far outstrips the product.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations, says the second half of the season is extremely promising, with such potential blockbusters as "Planet of the Apes," "Jurassic Park III," "America's Sweethearts" and "Rush Hour 2." Dergarabedian forecasts a record summer total of between $3.3 billion and $3.5 billion by Labor Day, which could help propel the entire year to the $8-billion mark for the first time. The industry is already halfway there, with $4.1 billion since Jan. 1.

Here's a look at what worked, what didn't and the lessons learned so far for some of the breakout films this summer.

"Shrek"

Success scale: High. This computer-generated animated comedy delivered as an entertainment for audiences of all ages, like the best animated hits of the recent past: the "Toy Story" movies, "The Lion King," "Beauty and the Beast." The script had real wit and memorable fable-like characters that drew consistent repeat business, turning it from a hit into a blockbuster.

Key factor: Adults heavily patronized the film at full-priced evening showings, fattening the lovable ogre's purse.

The lesson: Good writing still matters.

"The Fast and the Furious"

Success scale: High. This urban street racing drama appeared fresh and different. Although it is a glossy kissing cousin to 1950s low-budget drive-in action movies, for those under age 25 the genre has appeared as new as "Gladiator's" swords and sandals did last year. A diverse, multiethnic cast and palpitating action sequences that didn't achieve their result through special effects made it the must-see film for the teen/young adult crowd.

Key factor: Universal held the film for summer (it was originally planned for March) and screened it more than 300 times to generate word of mouth.

The lesson: You don't need expensive stars or heavy-duty technology to make an impression.

"Pearl Harbor"

Success scale: Mixed. The uneasy combination of eye-popping, state-of-the art special effects and a leaden plot proved to be the film's ultimate undoing. As probably the most anticipated and most expensive movie of the summer, it fell prey to unrealistic expectations. After a sturdy start, the falloff was rapid.

Key factor: "Pearl Harbor" reeked of calculation every step of the way. It seemed to be manufactured to ape the success of "Titanic"--great effects, schmaltzy love story. But whereas the romance in "Titanic" struck a nerve with audiences (particularly young females), "Pearl Harbor's" wasn't up to snuff.

The lesson: Audiences, not studio marketing machines, create blockbusters.

"A.I."

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