Hollywood's summer of box-office discontent

Big hits needed to save the season


August 21, 2005|By R. Kinsey Lowe | R. Kinsey Lowe,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOLLYWOOD - Jeff Blake, the vice chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, summed it up this way: "The summer did not work out the way we hoped."

Although he was talking about his own studio, his statement applied to the rest of Hollywood as well.

Summer's not officially over, but much of the industry has written off what is traditionally one of the busiest stretches of the year: Despite a decades-long upward trend, the season's attendance is off about 10 percent from last year, and is at its lowest level since 2000.

The deficit is nothing a few blockbusters or a handful of modest hits couldn't take care of - and hopes remain high with films like this weekend's new releases, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and the suspense thriller Red Eye - but the turnaround hasn't happened yet.

Worse, Hollywood has been hard-pressed to walk away with any lessons.

"This is definitely the most pontificated summer ever," Universal Pictures Vice Chairman Marc Shmuger said.

What went wrong with this summer "is probably anybody's guess," said Toby Emmerich, president of production for New Line, adding that he thinks the downward trend has "been a little bit exaggerated."

The nature of the movie business is notoriously cyclical - a couple years up, one or two down and then back up again. Every year has films that really connect with audiences and others that don't, and this year simply has had more of the latter, these executives and other observers agreed.

Nonetheless, summer, which accounts for about 40 percent or more of the year's movie business, is a critical time for the studios. With a projected overall gross of $3.7 billion, summer 2005 will be at least 7 percent to 10 percent behind last year in terms of dollars as well, according to tracking company Exhibitor Relations.

The year-to-date haul isn't looking much better: It's about $5.6 billion versus $6 billion at this time in 2004, according to another tracking enterprise, Nielsen EDI Inc. Several highly anticipated movies are still on their way, but it remains to be seen whether Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, The Chronicles of Narnia and the Wardrobe and King Kong can turn the trend around.

Films that have risen to the top this summer - the bona-fide blockbusters and the unexpected hits - suggest that audiences are ready and willing to plunk down their money when they believe it's worth it.

"Whenever we give 'em a movie they like, they come out," said Hutch Parker, president of 20th Century Fox, the only studio that has passed the $1 billion worldwide mark this year.

Take the summer's sequels and remakes: Grosses for summer's top films indicate they work, despite criticism about Hollywood's proclivity for recycling material.

Warner Bros. reinvigorated a cherished franchise with Batman Begins. The studio's other big success was Tim Burton's version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp as the eccentric candy mogul Willy Wonka.

There's not much point in generalizing about the rest of the summer's slate.

Two of the season's biggest and costliest flops - Sony's Stealth and DreamWorks' The Island - have led to much hand-wringing about the action and sci-fi genres, yet audiences flocked to 20th Century Fox's Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith and Paramount's War of the Worlds.

Prestige projects from highly respected directors unexpectedly faltered as well, as did movies that were loved by the critics. Ridley Scott's swords-and-sandals epic Kingdom of Heaven was a major disappointment, Nora Ephron's modern-day take on witchery, Bewitched, failed to work much magic, and Ron Howard's acclaimed boxing drama, Cinderella Man, fell flat.

Often, it was the quirky and the offbeat that proved to be a summer highlight. The Warner Independent Pictures release March of the Penguins - a documentary about the sheer will to survive - is well on its way to becoming one of the summer's three most lucrative movies (based on what they brought in at the box office relative to what they cost to acquire or produce). March of the Penguins cost Warner Independent $1 million to acquire and another $600,000 to rework for U.S. audiences, and it has grossed almost $38 million.

It joins Crash and Wedding Crashers in that enviable success category. Lions Gate paid just $3.3 million to acquire Crash, a $6.5 million independent movie about alienated Los Angeles residents that has so far taken in $53 million.

"It's great to see nonformulaic films succeed so well," said Tom Ortenberg, president of Lions Gate Releasing.

New Line Cinema's Wedding Crashers, an R-rated comedy, has taken in $164 million and counting. Its budget: $40 million. Emmerich was philosophical about the movie's success: "It's good to be right - you're not always right, so it feels good."

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