Last year was remarkable at the box office, with moviegoers spending more than $9 billion, up roughly 13% over 2001 grosses. The boom was even bigger in home video, where DVD sales were up 50%, topping $8 billion in sales. So why were more people watching movies when the movies were no better -- or even worse -- than ever?
A look at the year's highest-grossing films offers a revealing snapshot of moviegoer tastes. As befits a culture beset by threats of war, terrorism and economic insecurity, we were hungry for escapism. The films that dominated the pop mainstream -- "Spider-Man," "Star Wars: Episode 2 -- Attack of the Clones," "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers" and "Men in Black II" -- all offered special-effects fantasies and battles between good and evil involving characters with magical powers. Even "Signs," the one earthbound drama in the box-office Top 5, was a sci-fi-style fable about a family's battle against invaders from another planet.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 16 inches; 573 words Type of Material: Correction
"The Big Picture" -- The column in Tuesday's Calendar did not include the source of a quote from director Barry Sonnenfeld. The quote originally appeared in Variety on Dec. 12 as part of a longer passage that included this full sentence, referring to executives overseeing Paramount Pictures: "I like both Sherry Lansing and Jon Dolgen, but they only look at the downside of a potential investment, not the upside."
With rare exception, the big hits are the movies that lend themselves to sequelization and windfall DVD profits. But it's important to remember that many of the year's biggest duds were also supposed slam-dunk remakes and sequels, such as "I Spy," "Rollerball," "Four Feathers," "Analyze That" and "Star Trek: Nemesis."
Guessing what moviegoers want is one of the toughest crystal-ball jobs in America. If I were running a studio, I'd put it out of business in no time flat. With that caveat in mind, here's my 2002 Studio Report Card gauging the performance of the top studios, with two grades: one for box-office performance, one for movie quality. Based on those ratings, here are my rankings, from most to least successful studio.
With seven No. 1 opening-weekend movies, Sony broke all sorts of box-office records in 2002. But the real news was that after years of ups and downs, the studio emerged as a place where everybody wanted to do business. The lion's share of credit goes to studio chief Amy Pascal, who provided firm leadership and refreshing candor; when friends asked about her big loser, "I Spy," she admitted the movie was a stinker. Sony may go overboard on marketing expenditures, but it got a lot of bang from hits like "Panic Room," "Mr. Deeds," "Men in Black II" and "XXX." Of all the summer smashes, "Spider-Man" got the best reviews, thanks to the studio's shrewdly putting the film in the hands of producer Laura Ziskin and director Sam Raimi.
Did you know? Ziskin's husband, Oscar-winning screenplay vet Alvin Sargent, played a key uncredited role in doctoring the "Spider-Man" script.
Box office: A. Quality: B+.
New Line Cinema
How do you knock a studio whose "Lord of the Rings" sequel is doing even better than the original, had a $200-million-plus hit with "Austin Powers in Goldmember" and has an Oscar contender with the Jack Nicholson-starring "About Schmidt"? Still, the studio could be faulted for playing it safe: New Line released only seven other movies, none of them big losers, including the surprise hit "John Q" and the low-budget sequels "Friday After Next" and "Blade 2." Production chief Toby Emmerich is still an unproven commodity, having yet to persuade industry dealmakers that he'll back risky projects or make tough decisions without studio founder Bob Shaye's approval.
Did you know? The studio made an abortive attempt to re-cut "About Schmidt."
Box office: A-. Quality: B.
The studio had the year's second-biggest box-office grosses, fueled by whopping profits from "Signs," "Lilo and Stitch," "Sweet Home Alabama" and "Santa Clause 2." Its unsung hero: marketing maven Oren Aviv, who turned low-budget underdogs "The Rookie" and "Snow Dogs" into stellar performers. However, thanks to meddling from Disney czar Michael Eisner, the studio missed out on the much-sought-after remake of "Peter Pan" and is in danger of losing its invaluable pact with "Toy Story" creators Pixar, a bad sign at a time when the Disney animation brand has lost much of its punch, resulting in a huge write-off on "Treasure Planet."
Did you know? Needing a prestige movie, the studio nabbed Spike Lee's "25th Hour," which promptly got bad reviews almost everywhere.
Box office: B+. Quality: B.
The studio still has production-chief identity issues and overspends on budgets. (Who else would've put up $95 million for "Road to Perdition"?) But even if DreamWorks appears out of the Oscar race for the first time in years, of the seven movies it made, none were big losers. "Catch Me If You Can" is on its way to blockbuster status and "The Ring" was one of the year's surprise hits, despite being re-cut without director Gore Verbinski's participation.
Did you know? Verbinski completed "The Time Machine" after original director Simon Wells fell prey to exhaustion.
Box office: B+. Quality: B.