Enough with the event movies already.
That’s the message Hollywood is getting from the summer season so far. Audiences can stomach a couple of big films, the more original the better, but not some major technological, plotless feat every weekend.
What a disappointment for the studios; what a victory for the power of consumer choice.
That’s not to say that the money isn’t rolling in hand over fist for most of the studios, especially the long-troubled Columbia TriStar, which has “Men in Black,” “My Best Friend’s Wedding” and the upcoming “Air Force One.” The problem is that not all the movies are earning up to their potential, some are downright bombs, and they all cost too much for that to sit easy with the film industry.
And as far as box-office analysis goes, summer’s just about over. There are only a handful of blockbusters left: “Air Force One” (July 25), “Conspiracy Theory” (Aug. 8) and ‘G.I. Jane” (Aug. 15). Since the pre-summer run was such a bust with the failure of “Volcano,” “The Fifth Element” and “Fathers’ Day,” that means the season that usually accounts for two-thirds of box-office revenue comes down to basically a few dog days of June. In just that month, revenues were down 15 percent from last year to a five-year low of $493 million.
The six weeks between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July - from “The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s” spectacular results to “Men in Black’s” parade - haven’t been without hits. But even the films that have been successful act as cautionary tales. Usually the best lessons come from failures, but this summer’s true dud, “Speed 2: Cruise Control,” and the critical disappointment “Batman & Robin,” are almost too easy to peg. The real learning comes from the good side, such as:
Everything can’t be an event. Releasing so many big-budget movies has taken the event out of event movies. When “Independence Day” opened last year, it made a spectacular $11.1 million during its overnight preview run. Everyone had to see the film on its first night, even if that meant going at 4 a.m. - the exact definition of an event. When “Lost World” tried the same thing, it earned $2.6 million, even though it was on more screens in more places across the country. “Men in Black” opted for Tuesday previews starting at 8 p.m. instead of an all-nighter and pulled in $4.8 million.
Both 1997 moves seemed more like crass stunts than the swelling of the zeitgeist.
More may be better, but more of the same is not. The perception that all event films are the same is beginning to sting Hollywood. “Volcano” was snuffed out by the earlier release of “Dante’s Peak.” Moviegoers held up their noses at “Speed 2,” completely ignored “The Second Jungle Book,” laughed at “Batman & Robin” after giving it a try at first, and even lumbered away from “The Lost World” faster than expected. The scary words for these films have been “precipitous drop-off.” After a record-setting first weekend, “Lost World” dropped 57 percent in its second, and another 43 percent in its third, and may now not earn even $250 million.
“Batman & Robin” went from $43.6 to $15.7 million, a tumble of more than 60 percent in two weeks. “Speed” 2 fell off the radar immediately.
The quick burn means it’s most likely that no film this summer will reach the $300 million range, and only a few will make $100 million, although at least 10 of the films cost that much to make.
In contrast, audiences gave John Woo a chance with his stylistic thriller “Face/Off” and stayed with “Con Air,” which is a traditional action film but with a unique cast. “Hercules” falls somewhere in the middle of those two categories; it’s a typical Disney summer musical, but it’s getting a better critical reception than the last two efforts. Audiences have been ambivalent, however, giving it slightly lower box-office numbers than “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.” Which leads to the next lesson.
Dynasties aren’t always worth the trouble of expectations. The corollary: Sometimes they are.
“Batman” has had an up-and-down money history, but the fourth installment is likely to drag on the down side. “Batman & Robin” is the most lavish of the group, has the highest budget at a rumored $150 million and probably will make the least of all. No matter the outcome, a fifth installment is likely. But it’s easy to ask why.
Disney has a different sort of problem with its animated summer musicals. All of them are different, but they are compared to each other nonetheless. Any dip in box office or quality is seen as a major failure.
“Hercules” is holding its own so far, even with a Southern Baptist boycott in place.
Since moviegoers obviously want original films and are showing little patience for sequels, one would think movie studios would be daunted by the fear of expectations. But the first thing said about “Men in Black” when it racked up $84 million in five days was: franchise.
Action isn’t everything. Why did “My Best Friend’s Wedding” score the highest-ever opening for a romantic comedy? Because people were starved for light, quality fare. None of the other romances of the summer scored because they were terrible, especially Meg Ryan’s “Addicted to Love” and Jeanne Tripplehorn’s “‘Til There Was You.”
The latest theory in Hollywood is that these films aren’t worth making and that the major studios are better off with big-budget fare that appeals across the board. But the industry should take note that in the midst of so many action pictures, audiences will gladly sit still for romances worth watching. They just won’t watch bad ones.
Counterprogramming can’t be lazy. The true lost world of the summer is that of the art film. What better time to release quality, intelligent fare than when big Hollywood is bumbling around and losing ground? Too bad nobody capitalized.
The biggest indie hits are “Love! Valour! Compassion!” and “Ulee’s Gold.” Both are solid films but not outstanding.
The high-water mark for films such as these is $10 million, a number easily eclipsed by some of last year’s snazzy fare such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Emma” and “Lone Star.” But none of 1997’s offerings look as if they’re going to hit even $5 million, except perhaps the late-August “Cop Land” and “She’s So Lovely,” if they aren’t pushed into the fall schedule.
In fact, many of the films still scheduled for the end of July and August may end up jumping ship for fall or winter. Since the studios didn’t make as much money as they had hoped, they will want to stretch what they’ve already released as far as possible. And the littler guys may fear what has happened so far and wait for a better time for specialized fare.
For moviegoers, that will mean more time to spend with the family or surfing the Internet.
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