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THE BIG PICTURE / PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

A cold snap in Fox's summer

August 12, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

WHEN News Corp. President Peter Chernin was taking a victory lap last week after the company reported a 27% jump in its fiscal fourth-quarter net income, he took pains to credit the 20th Century Fox Film Group for much of the good news. He also predicted healthy earnings in the future, pointing to such upcoming summer 2009 films as "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" and "Night at the Museum II: Escape From the Smithsonian." For Hollywood insiders, it was telling that Chernin -- perhaps the savviest showbiz mogul of our era -- somehow failed to mention any of his studio's movies from this summer.

And with good reason. This is the first summer since 1997 that Fox hasn't had a $100-million box-office hit. For 10 straight summers, the Fox assembly line has churned out every kind of hit imaginable, including the "X-Men" movies; comedies such as "Dr. Dolittle" and "Big Momma's House"; and last year's "The Simpsons Movie." Even more impressive: In three of the last four summers the studio had three $100-million-plus hits each year.

The remarkable consistency of the Fox movie machine has made this summer's series of disappointments and flops even more surprising. It's a shock to the system -- like the New York Yankees not making the playoffs. Built around intense fiscal discipline and tight creative control, Fox has been a studio that rarely made a false move.

But this summer has been different. Without a true tent-pole film, the results have been dispiriting. The studio's biggest hit was "What Happens in Vegas," a forgettable comedy that grossed $80 million in the U.S. and roughly $215 million around the world. "The Happening," a poorly reviewed thriller from M. Night Shyamalan, topped out at $64 million (although it has performed better overseas). The other films have been embarrassments, especially by Fox standards. "Meet Dave," a costly Eddie Murphy comedy, was a big bomb; "The X-Files: I Want to Believe" had a weak opening and dropped off precipitously afterward; and "Space Chimps" barely made a ripple (though it wasn't financed by Fox). This coming weekend's entry, "Mirrors," is another film Fox is simply distributing (it was financed by New Regency), but it's still eating up time and money on the release schedule. According to tracking numbers, it's on course to be another loser.

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FOX EXECUTIVES say that after 10 straight summers of success it was inevitable that they'd have an off year. Fair enough. But I say the cruel summer numbers are also the result of a rigidly constructed system that has driven away nearly all of the creative filmmakers and producers who once worked on the lot, putting the studio's movies in the hands of hacks, newcomers and nonentities who largely execute the wishes of the Fox production team led by studio Co-Chairmen Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos.

Rothman and Gianopulos (who would not speak to me for this story) have been running the studio since 2000, and they've run it as well as anyone else has run theirs. But by Hollywood standards, nine years is the equivalent of a couple of centuries. Is it time for new blood -- or at least a new approach?

When it comes to Fox's movie management skills, I've always been of two minds. The part of me who has to balance a checkbook every month is always impressed, since the studio rarely wastes money, avoids colossal blunders and shrewdly steers its risky art-house projects to Fox Searchlight, its specialty film division. But the part of me who loves movies questions whether a studio can go to such lengths to manage risk that it bleeds all the joy, spontaneity and art out of the business.

With the exception of James Cameron and Baz Luhrmann, who make movies once every millennium, Fox rarely hires a filmmaker with contractual rights to the final cut or any strong creative point of view. With the exception of Shyamalan, whose career has been in a downhill slide ever since "The Sixth Sense," this summer's films were directed by guys who will get invited to the Oscars only as someone else's date. "Meet Dave's" Brian Robbins did "Norbit." "Vegas' " Tom Vaughan did "Starter for 10." "Space Chimps' " Kirk De Micco is a first-time director. "Mirrors" director Alexander Aja did the horror film "The Hills Have Eyes."

It wasn't always this way. In the early years of Fox's $100-million streak, the studio still occasionally had the appetite for classy summer fare made by A-list filmmakers. In 1998, both Warren Beatty's "Bulworth" and Forest Whitaker's "Hope Floats" were summer films. In 2001, the studio released Luhrmann's "Moulin Rouge" and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" in the summer. Even as late as 2002, it put out summer films directed by such distinctive filmmakers as Adrian Lyne ("Unfaithful") and Steven Spielberg ("Minority Report").

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