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AT THE MOVIES : WORD OF MOUTH

A season to rave about

It's not just about money. This summer, good movies scored big.

August 28, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Eddie MURPHY'S career was on the rebound. Until this summer.

Larry and Andy Wachowski had been box-office gold. Then "Speed Racer" crashed and burned.

And not that long ago, 20th Century Fox could peddle the most middling movies. But there was no such magic for "Space Chimps," "The Rocker" or "The X-Files: I Want to Believe."

Those, however, were the few exceptions to the summer movie season, when almost everything worked for the studios.

The school's-out movie season concludes this weekend, and domestic ticket sales so far total $3.9 billion, up a little more than 1% from last year's record summer, according to Media by Numbers. Year-to-date revenues stand at $6.7 billion, down slightly from 2007, but up from the three earlier years, the tracking firm says.

Higher ticket prices mean theaters are selling fewer total admissions, but few distributors and exhibitors are complaining -- except for those handling what has become Hollywood's trickiest sell: the art film.

While the summer was filled with far more hits than catastrophes, there were a handful of star vehicles that hardly drew a breath. Mike Myers' "The Love Guru" grossed only $32.2 million. Kevin Costner's self-financed "Swing Vote" has brought in a negligible $15.5 million. And no one wanted to meet Murphy's "Meet Dave," which sold a mere $11.7 million in tickets.

Even with so many sequels, remakes and knockoffs, the quality of the movies themselves actually mattered.

No matter how hard the studios hammered away with bombastic television ads and deafening coming attractions previews, it was ultimately word of mouth -- supported by critical raves -- that propelled moviegoers to the multiplex. It was no fluke that the summer's two highest-grossing releases -- Jon Favreau's "Iron Man" and Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" -- were among the year's best-reviewed studio films.

Here's a ranking of how the major studios performed this summer:

Paramount

How in the world is Paramount ranked ahead of Warner Bros., which released "The Dark Knight," now the second highest-grossing film of all time? Consistency.

No other studio claimed more than one movie grossing more than $200 million this summer, and Paramount had three: "Iron Man," "Kung Fu Panda" and "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

What's noteworthy about Paramount's summer is how few of its films were purely homegrown. "Iron Man" was made by Marvel Studios; "Indiana Jones" was co-produced by George Lucas' Lucasfilm; "Kung Fu Panda" came from DreamWorks Animation; and "Tropic Thunder" hails from DreamWorks' live-action division. That leaves Paramount in sole custody of . . . "The Love Guru," the studio's one true bomb. Repeating this summer's triumph next year might be tough, as Paramount recently lost two of its best marketing executives -- Gerry Rich and Mike Vollman.

Warner Bros.

With a domestic gross of more than $490 million, "The Dark Knight" trails only one movie in box-office history, 1997's "Titanic." But that wasn't the studio's only remarkable feat. Facing competitive summer comedies from Mike Myers, Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell and Seth Rogen, Warners delivered the period's No. 1 laugher, Steve Carell in "Get Smart," which grossed $128.2 million. Inheriting "Sex and the City" from New Line Cinema, Warners watched women stampede to theaters, as the HBO series update grossed more than $152 million. Another New Line production, "Journey to the Center of the Earth," sold $92 million in tickets, very good for a movie that was initially made for 3-D but couldn't always be shown in the format because there weren't enough 3-D theaters.

While "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2" generated strong reviews and has grossed $38.7 million, the late-season sequel couldn't undo the damage delivered at the summer's start by "Speed Racer." The studio and partner Village Roadshow spent a quarter of a billion dollars making and marketing the anime-inspired kids' movie worldwide, but it grossed just $43.9 million, and barely any more overseas. A lot of "Dark Knight" profits will be sucked into that abyss.

Universal

The studio entered the summer carrying a lot of what talent agents call "science projects": movies that needed a lot of puzzling over to succeed. Yet almost all of Universal's releases met or exceeded expectations, especially outside the United States, where Universal raked in a fortune.

The studio's $55-million "Mamma Mia!" has grossed more than $125 million domestically, but almost double that overseas -- when all the tickets are counted, the ABBA musical could take in more than $450 million worldwide. Not bad for the work of first-time director Phyllida Lloyd.

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