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WORD OF MOUTH

Studios' summer school

Some lessons so far: Be original, lighten up, indies are out and Fox can't sell Shyamalan.

June 26, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer
  • Odds are Iron Man will be No. 1, not Indiana Jones.
Odds are Iron Man will be No. 1, not Indiana Jones. (Zade Rosenthal / Associated…)

Kids ARE barely out of school, most vacations haven't yet started, and the Fourth of July beer is far from chilling. While it may seem that summer has barely begun, by Hollywood's calendar (where summer starts in early May) it's almost halfway over. And some -- but not all -- of the news is good.

While this year's cumulative box-office grosses are about even with last year's at this time -- $4.27 billion versus $4.26 billion a year ago -- actual admissions are down about 3% compared with 2007, according to Media By Numbers. Within the summer season, though, attendance is actually up about 2.5% from a year ago, the research service says, with total summer grosses up more than 5%, due to higher ticket prices.

Several presumptive blockbusters have yet to debut -- Friday's "Wall-E," Pixar's latest and perhaps most imaginative animated movie yet; July 2's "Hancock," Will Smith's sometimes bleak superhero story from Sony; and July 18's "The Dark Knight," Warner Bros.' latest Batman installment from writer-director Chris Nolan. Those films will most likely do huge business.

Yet even with so many successes and potential hits to come, there are some causes for concern. Here are a few of the season's lessons so far:

Even in the summer, originality counts more than anything. The season's (if not the year's) highest-grossing movie could very likely be "Iron Man," which already has grossed more than $305 million. Anyone looking at Paramount's slate would have predicted that "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" would collect that honor. And while audiences flocked to that mostly weakly reviewed sequel starring Harrison Ford, "Iron Man," thanks to its fresh story and glowing notices, will probably take the No. 1 spot.

Size matters. Even within the last two years, specialized film distributors could drop smaller art-house movies into the summer and make some money -- "An Inconvenient Truth," "Waitress" and "Once" among the recent examples. This summer, even the best-reviewed limited releases are dying on arrival, including Paramount Vantage's "Son of Rambow," Fox Searchlight's "Young@Heart" and Magnolia's "Bigger, Stronger, Faster*." The rare indie film that's stuck around: Overture's "The Visitor."

Event movies come in all shapes and sizes. Rival studios (and several box-office analysts) wrote off New Line's "Sex and the City" because its appeal fell narrowly into one demographic group: older women. But those women turned the movie into a happening, organizing screening parties that included pregame cocktails and fancy footwear. The result: $133 million and counting.

Complete concept rejection is always a killer. It's the same idea of pushing a plate of smoked tofu in front of your 3-year-old: not a single bite. Already this summer, the studios have spent fortunes on two movies that audiences rejected within minutes of their landing at the multiplex. Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow invested at least $150 million in "Speed Racer," while Paramount and Spyglass split the bill on the $70-million "The Love Guru," with multiple millions more spent on marketing both releases. Despite the wall-to-wall marketing blitzes, neither film will gross $45 million domestically in theaters.

Fox can sell snow to Eskimos, but not all the time. Revered within the industry for its ability to peddle successfully even the most middlebrow movies, Fox started the summer with a typical flourish, drawing audiences to "What Happens in Vegas" despite terrible reviews (a 28% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and opening a week after "Iron Man." The Cameron Diaz comedy has almost grossed a strong $80 million. But the Fox marketing magic ("It's rated R!" "It opens on Friday the 13th!") couldn't overcome M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening," which will be his biggest flop behind "Lady in the Water."

Darkness should be limited to theater lighting, not tone. Various explanations were offered to explain the comparatively feeble performance of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," which will gross less than half of 2005's "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." The sequel may have been damaged by its more menacing tenor; as the continued rejection of any war-related movie suggests ("War, Inc." being the latest casualty), moviegoers of all ages are craving light escape more than ever.

Paramount is on fire. In addition to its winning marketing of "Iron Man" and "Indiana Jones," the studio guided "Kung Fu Panda" to the best opening for any DreamWorks Animation non-sequel. "Tropic Thunder" looks like a potential late-season hit too. Nevertheless, Paramount couldn't crack "The Love Guru." But even the most enlightened marketing executives would have struggled to sell that one.

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john.horn@latimes.com

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