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Sneaks 2002

Ready, Set, Rewind

Studios are playing it safe with numerous sequels, prequels and reworkings of tried-and-true themes.

January 20, 2002|RACHEL ABRAMOWITZ | Times Staff Writer

"What the mass media offers is not popular art but entertainment which is intended to be consumed like food, forgotten, and replaced by a new dish."

That's a line from the British poet W.H. Auden. His is not a name that trips off the tongues of moguls as they dine on Cobb salads at the Grill, or of rabid development executives hunting down their next big script. Indeed, Auden's final book of poetry, "Epistle to a Godson," was published in 1972.

That was the last golden age of Hollywood, when such films as "The Godfather," "Cabaret" and "What's Up, Doc?" were rolling into theaters. Imagine what he might have said if he had had to contemplate a year filled with "Star Wars" 5, "Jason" 10, "Bond" 20, "Austin Powers" 3, "Lord of the Rings" 2, "Harry Potter" 2, "Men in Black" 2, "Stuart Little" 2, "Spy Kids" 2, "Santa Clause" 2, and new installments in the Jack Ryan, "Star Trek" and "Desperado" franchises. That's not to mention such live-action comic strips as "Spider-Man," "Constantine," "Daredevil" and "Scooby-Doo" (whose trailer got a big cheer from the audience when I saw "Harry Potter" 1).

Unlike Wall Street and Silicon Valley, the movie business appears to be percolating along. In 2001, the industry earned a record $8.3 billion. Six films grossed more than $200 million each, five of them with significant kid appeal. "Family entertainment was king last year," Columbia Pictures Chairman Amy Pascal notes. "If we learned anything last year, it's that families like to go to the movies together, and if you give them good movies, they will go."

Kids will have plenty to see next year. Besides the juggernaut fantasy sequels, there is such Nickelodeon product as "Clockstoppers" and "Hey Arnold! The Movie," as well as an Imax prequel to the 1979 "The Black Stallion" a prequel to "Peter Pan," and Disney's "The Country Bears," which has the dubious distinction of being the first film derived from a theme park attraction. ("Pirates of the Caribbean" is coming--this is not a joke.)

Just because box office was up didn't mean, however, that more people flocked to the pictures. As veteran prognosticator Tom Sherak of Revolution Studios points out, "The admissions don't change. The box office goes up because the price of the tickets goes up." Adding an ominous note, Sherak explains that to get really big grosses, the studios need to win the hearts and minds not of those who live in New York or here in L.A., but of the residents of Wichita, Decatur, Omaha and Rapid City. "The philosophy is if a movie is to be really big, it works from the middle of the country out. A picture can do well working on the coast, but to be really big, it needs to be working in the middle of the country."

Moreover, it was a year of unprecedented turmoil behind the scenes as the studios geared up for a strike that never happened, jamming pictures into production willy-nilly in the first quarter of the year. They then sat around for a number of months trying to digest what they had wrought, until they were sideswiped by the events of Sept. 11 and sat around for a few more months trying to figure out how pop culture should respond.

The net result appears to be a collective grasp for the familiar. It's a year long on marketing concepts, and short on films that can't be described in 10 words or less, although as ever there are a few hardy souls beating against the tide of corporatization and the prevailing assumption that movies are simply widgets that talk.

At least half the films coming appear to be retreads of past hits. "Rules of Engagement" is recycled into "High Crimes," and "Sleeping With the Enemy" has morphed into "Enough," now starring J. Lo instead of Julia Roberts. Eddie Murphy updates "48 Hours" with "Showtime," trading in former partner Nick Nolte for new comic superstar Robert De Niro.

"The Full Monty" has spawned an entire genre--the band of misfits makes good--that includes "Welcome to Collinwood" ("The Full Monty" does a heist), "The First $20 Million Is Always the Hardest" ("The Full Monty" goes online) and "Lucky Break" ("The Full Monty" in jail).

There is also the progeny of "The Sixth Sense," films that combine thrills and new-age mysticism, such as "Dragonfly," in which Kevin Costner is contacted by the spirit of his dead wife through the near-death experiences of her patients, and "Sin Eater," a Heath Ledger thriller about an ancient order of priests who can absolve the guilty of their sins, but, as the promotional material points out, "the absolution is fatal!"

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