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It pays to be angry

Ogre, others made summer box-office bucks, but moviegoing fell.

August 30, 2004|R. Kinsey Lowe | Times Staff Writer

Call this the summer of our discontent: Movie studios made money, but moviegoing in the U.S. was down for a second straight year. An angry ogre in "Shrek 2," an angry documentary filmmaker in Michael Moore and an angry scientist in "Spider-Man 2" did more to shake up and shape up the summer than anything else. If anything, most of the big guns wilted in the heat of competition with one major movie after another opening big, then fading fast.

And so the mantra became: "It's a global/DVD/pay-per-view world after all."

Come Labor Day, the box office tracking firm Nielsen EDI projects, the summer domestic box office will have taken in about $3.9 billion, a 3.6% increase over last summer. Rival tracking firm Exhibitor Relations Co. estimates the figure will be a little over $4 billion, but that includes the April 30-May 2 weekend, which EDI does not include in its projection. DreamWorks, which has had a slow start since its inception 10 years ago, ended the summer No. 1, with 20th Century Fox, Warner Bros., Sony and Universal, in that order, joining it to make up the top five studios. The only other summer DreamWorks came out on top was in 2000, when it had four solid performers: "Gladiator," "What Lies Beneath," "Chicken Run" and "Road Trip."

While "Shrek 2" ruled, Michael Moore rocked the status quo on-screen and off. No one would have predicted that his scabrous jab at George W. Bush, "Fahrenheit 9/11," would not only break records for a documentary -- it has grossed $117.5 million domestically to date -- but would also land among the top 10 films for the summer (it's currently in ninth place for summer and 11th for the year).

Admissions, meanwhile, as of last week, had dropped 1.8% from last summer, which was down 2.6% from the record summer of 2002, according to Exhibitor Relations. This means the number of people going to the movies in the summer has declined 4.3% in the last two years.

The last time attendance declined in consecutive summers was in 1995, '96 and '97, which posted respective drops of 5%, 2% and 1.3%, Exhibitor Relations said, but rebounded with a 14% increase in 1998 ("Saving Private Ryan" was the No. 1 movie in a season that included "Armageddon," "Godzilla" and "There's Something About Mary.")

DreamWorks' five-picture summer slate was lopsided, with "Shrek 2" grossing nearly $440 million, the most ever for any animated movie, and the other four taking in less than $100 million apiece. Of those, DreamWorks' "Anchorman" took in the most, and was unquestionably a domestic hit. Two high-profile star- and director-driven projects -- Steven Spielberg's "The Terminal" with Tom Hanks and Michael Mann's well-reviewed "Collateral" with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx -- did less than the company had hoped for on home ground but are expected to do better overseas, particularly the Cruise film.

Despite the feeling after last summer's onslaught that "audiences had tired of sequels," noted Walter Parkes, DreamWorks' head of production, "this summer showed that if you do a good job, audiences turn out for those films."

The top three films of the summer were sequels, and they were the only ones to gross more than $200 million apiece: "Shrek 2," with more than double that figure, is also the highest-grossing movie of the year; "Spider-Man 2," with just less than $370 million to date; and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," which raked in about $247.1 million, the least amount for a Potter movie, but it was also the first of those films to be released in summer instead of November. "The Bourne Supremacy," with $157.7 million and counting, was another successful sequel.

Only one of No. 2 studio Fox's summer releases could be considered a sequel, but the franchise cocktail mix of "Alien vs. Predator" -- inspired by a successful videogame that pitted two of the company's space aliens against each other -- performed well for the studio. Fox's other summer successes came from films that had no predecessors, starting with the global-warming thriller "The Day After Tomorrow," followed by Will Smith's "I, Robot" and "Dodgeball," starring Ben Stiller. With those, Fox was the only studio to have three summer films that grossed more than $100 million.

Twentieth Century Fox Chairman Tom Rothman said that even without any blockbusters "we had six hit films, all of which will be profitable for us," including April's "Man on Fire," which starred Denzel Washington. Fox set an industry record of six consecutive movies that posted opening weekends of $20 million or higher.

Despite the downturn in admissions -- partly due to there being no big surprise hits such as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," no "Star Wars" release, and because Disney had a streak of bad luck -- "the movie business has always been and always will be a business that is not dependent on economic cycles," Rothman said. "It's more a matter of creative cycles." Fox managed a strong summer without any $200-million U.S. grossers, big sequels or critical favorites.

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