Freeze frame on 2002
By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
No matter how you cut it, 2002 was a blockbuster year for Hollywood. More than 1.5 billion movie tickets were sold in the USA, the most since 1958, when going to the movies cost 65 cents and a 33-year-old Paul Newman was luring women in droves with Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Long, Hot Summer.
So why the resurgence? Naysayers had predicted the demise of film 40 years ago, when TVs started popping up in every home, and again in the early 1980s, when VCRs were doing the same.
Some say that lingering effects from Sept. 11, coupled with a flagging economy and worries about war, helped push 2002 ticket sales to a record $9.1 billion.
“Since the Depression, people have gone to theaters to escape harsh realities,” Los Angeles-based psychologist Henry Nguyen says. “That’s one reason fantasy films are doing so well.”
Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Association of America, believes the answer is simpler. “When you make a movie that a lot of people want to see, you will do well,” he says. “We’re making movies that a lot of people want to see.”
Whatever the reason, 2002’s success has raised the bar. If Hollywood plans to outdo itself next year, it will need to take some cues from the major hits and misses of 2002.
Here are 10 lessons to be taken from the box office this year:
1. Audiences love the Everyman (and Everywoman). Unlike previous, more chiseled superheroes, this year’s biggie, Spider-Man, began as a geeky nerd. A few drops of spider venom later, he went on to power the biggest opening weekend ever for a movie and the biggest movie of the year with $403 million in tickets sold.
The year’s other phenomenon, My Big Fat Greek Wedding ($223 million in tickets sold and counting) also celebrates real people over central casting clichÈ The heroes of Star Wars II: Attack of the Clones ($309 million), Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ($240 million) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers ($200 million in two weeks) aren’t buff action figures, either. They’re waifs.
“People were drawn to characters who were a lot like themselves,” says Sony Pictures vice chairman Jeff Blake, whose studio distributed Spider-Man. “I think we’re learning how to connect more with all types of audiences.”
2. Julia Roberts isn’t the only woman who can propel a romantic comedy. Roberts may still be the queen of Hollywood, with a $20 million-a-picture salary, but she has never anchored a film that opened at $35 million the way Reese Witherspoon did with Sweet Home Alabama. Sweet, indeed; the movie has gone on to bring in $125 million.
Let’s not forget the box office cleanup power shown by Jennifer Lopez, whose Maid in Manhattan ($57 million in three weeks) became the first film to prevent a Star Trek installment from opening at No. 1.
And although rail-thin figures and megawatt smiles still dominate movies, Wedding’s Nia Vardalos bucked the system by gaining 15 pounds and proudly displaying her weight, nose and the subtle sideburns she says she has had since she was 6 years old.
“Hopefully, people are seeing potential in other types of women, films, ethnic groups” than usually dominate movies, Vardalos says. “If (Wedding) has opened the door to any of that, this experience will have been even more magical.”
3. Urban films can appeal to everybody. Who wants to spend 24 hours with the bored employees of a small local business? Millions of people did, which is why Barbershop ($75 million) became the biggest black-themed film ever.
With unexpected successes like Drumline, which cost $20 million and has made $37 million in three weeks, and the $8 million Brown Sugar, which has made $27 million, studios may move away from black films that are gangsta-driven and distribute them beyond urban markets.
“I like to see these kinds of movies succeed, because it shows the establishment that we can write outside of just a couple of genres,” says director Spike Lee, whose latest film, 25th Hour, expands to theaters nationwide Jan. 10. “Confining screenwriters and directors into a certain kind of film cheats everybody in the end.”
4. Story lines count more than star lineups. Once upon a time, stars like Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis were money in the bank. But both commandeered major flops this year, including Murphy’s $100 million The Adventures of Pluto Nash (it made a piddling $4.4 million), I Spy and Showtime, and Willis’ Hart’s War, which brought in just $18.1 million.
“A big-name cast is great, but that will never guarantee you success,” says Robert Teitel, who produced Barbershop and Soul Food. “It’s all about writing a universal story that people relate to.”
5. Hollywood by the season is over. Memorial Day once kicked off Hollywood’s summer season. But The Scorpion King opened in the middle of April with $36 million and went on to take in $90.5 million. The first weekend in May, Spider-Man arrived and took in a record $114 million.
Tom Hanks’ downbeat gangster drama Road to Perdition had a fall release date written all over it, but DreamWorks released it in July. It remained on screens for four months and took in $104 million domestically.
The successes have Hollywood ripping up its traditional release calendars. “People are always ready to see entertaining movies,” says Nikki Rocco, distribution chief for Universal Pictures, which released King. “They don’t care what time of year it is.”
So in the new year, another comic-based action movie that would seem to be traditional summer fare, Daredevil with Ben Affleck, will open Feb. 14.
6. Old-fashioned animation is over. Or at least due for a break. Disney’s highly publicized, traditionally drawn $140 million Treasure Planet opened at family-friendly Thanksgiving. But it has made only $33 million and is fast disappearing from theaters. Likewise, Nickelodeon’s Wild Thornberrys has taken in just $18.4 million in two weeks and is fading compared with 2000’s surprise hit Rugrats in Paris, which took in $76 million. Neither Thornberrys nor Planet could surpass the three-dimensional computer-generated adventures of Ice Age ($176.4 million) and the edgy theme and Elvis tunes that boosted Lilo & Stitch ($145.8 million).
Two-dimensional animation “just isn’t appealing to kids right now because it’s nothing they haven’t seen before,” animation historian Jerry Beck says. “The best thing it could do is go into hibernation for a few years until it becomes fashionable again, as all things in Hollywood do.”
7. Bond is eternal. Whether you’re spoofing him with Austin Powers in Goldmember ($213.3 million), emulating him in XXX ($142 million) or bringing him back to the screen with Die Another Day ($146.7 million), the secret agent does a lot more than bed beauties and slay villains. He sells tickets.
Sure, there’s not much mystery to 007: He isn’t going to die, and he’ll always get the girl.
Still, “people know they’re going to go on a wild ride with him,” says Chris McGurk, vice chairman for Bond distributor MGM.
“And every film, we try to step up the effects and stunts and excitement. He’s dependable, recognizable fun. That’s why audiences love him.”
Coming next: Bond girl Halle Berry in a spinoff of her Jinx character from Die Another Day.
8. Unless they’re rappers, singers should keep their day jobs. This year, only hip-hop’s Eminem in 8 Mile ($114 million) made a savvy transition from mike to movies. Britney Spears in Crossroads ($38 million) and the late Aaliyah in Queen of the Damned ($30 million) had critics and audiences singing the blues.
“You can’t just pop out a vanity project and expect it to do well,” Mile producer Brian Grazer says. “You have to make sure the movie has what all good movies need: a serious writer and a serious director.”
9. Unless you’re Scooby-Doo, TV should remain on the small screen. The mystery-solving canine took a bite out of the box office with $153.3 million, despite dismal reviews. But his boob tube compatriots, including Powerpuff Girls ($11.4 million) Hey Arnold! The Movie ($13.7 million) and I Spy ($33 million), flopped.
“It’s very hard to try to get people to pay money for something they can see on TV for free,” says historian Beck.
10. As much as we gripe, we love our franchises. Sure, they lack originality, but franchises, sequels and spinoffs are luring people to theaters like never before. Four of the top five films of the year are franchise material, tied with 1999 for the most ever.
“Sequels used to be quick, throwaway movies that were never as good as the first,” Sony’s Blake says. “Now we’ve learned that if you make an improvement on the movie before it, people become loyal to that brand.”
If you’re wondering whether that will continue, you’re going to love 2003’s installments of X Men, Tomb Raider, Bad Boys, Charlie’s Angels, The Fast and the Furious, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings…
Freeze frame on 2002