Grading the summer films

Hollywood is ready to say goodbye to its summer of discontent.
This was to be the season that helped the industry turn around the attendance slide that began in winter and continued through spring. Showcase films ó from Star Wars to Batman Begins to War of the Worldsó would get the studios back on track.
Though those movies were blockbusters, few other films delivered. Instead of reviving studios and theaters, summer hosted the longest losing streak in Hollywood history; 19 consecutive weekends in which ticket sales lagged behind the comparable weekends in 2004.
Action fizzled. An Oscar hopeful gained little steam. Little films stayed that way.
The slump left studio execs baffled. In Cinderella Man, distributor Universal Pictures felt confident it had not only an Academy Award contender, but also a hit comparable to its Seabiscuit, the 2003 horseracing film that raked in $120.3 million. Instead, the Depression-era boxing film managed $60.4 million ó respectable, but hardly a champ.
The film’s disappointing returns, along with the extended summer slump, have prompted Universal to examine the way the studio markets its films.
“We’re going to go back to the drawing board,” says Nikki Rocco, Universal’s head of distribution. “Good movies are supposed to buck this trend. You hear how it’s all about the product, but we have an excellent movie that people just aren’t turning out for. It’s something bigger.”
Moviegoers would agree. In various surveys, they cite rising ticket and concession prices, noisy audiences and a lackluster film slate as reasons to stay away from theaters.
“I’d have to give the summer a C or a C-minus in terms of going to the movies,” says Mike Orton, 38, of Dearborn, Mich. “Everything seemed like a remake or a sequel or a TV show. It felt like I’d seen everything they were putting out.”
Film fans echoed that sentiment this summer as ticket sales for the season fell 10% behind last summer’s pace. Overall this year, ticket sales are down about 8% and attendance is down 10%, threatening to make this year the lowest-grossing since 2001.
The news wasn’t all bad. Nuptials were a hit, and documentaries continue to play well. And Darth Vader gave us a fitting farewell.
“It might not be a great year for movies,” says Gitesh Pandya of “But there’s still time left for it to be a good one.”
It’s time to dispense the grades in our annual summer report card for Hollywood. Here’s our our take on where the action √≥ and wasn’t.
Here’s where the action was √≥ and wasn’t
Marriage: A
Who says the institution is dead? Marriage-minded movies were about the only solid hits ofsummer, beginning in May with the surprising success of Monster-in-Law. The Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda comedy racked up $82.5 million.Mr. & Mrs. Smith demonstrated that marriage counseling can be worth the effort: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took in $179.1 million.And Wedding Crashers took the cake last weekend by nabbing the top spot at the box office in its third weekend. The buddy comedy has managed$144.1 million.”A wedding is such a dramatic event in any person’s life that it’s the perfect fodder for the movies,” says Kim Morgan, a columnist for the filmsite Audiences, she says, relate to something in any wedding film, “from picture perfect rituals to those chaos-ridden family affairs.”
Documentaries: B+
Though the summer lacked a monster documentary such as last year’s Fahrenheit 9/11, documentaries were still one of the safest filmmaking bets this season.March of the Penguins waddled to the second spot among highest-grossing documentaries ever with $26.2 million and counting. And Mad HotBallroom waltzed to the No. 10 spot with $6.5 million.Not bad, considering that both films cost about $1 million to the studios distributing them.The only thing stopping docs from a straight A was Murderball, the story about quadriplegic rugbyplayers that brought in only $870,000, probably because of its serious tone.Still, audiences are flocking to virtually anything that feels fresh to them, says Robert Bucksbaum of industry tracking firm Reelsource. “The feeling among audiences is that Hollywood has run out of ideas,” he says. “The studios that come up with the original films have the advantage.”
Superheroes: B
After the lackluster performance of comic-book adaptations such as Elektra and Catwoman, some pundits predicted doom for the superheroes.But Batman Begins silenced the naysayers by taking in $196.6 million. And despite some savage reviews,Fantastic Four has collected $143.8 million.Even Sky High, the low-on-the-radar Disney film about a high school for superheroes, has managed $32.1 million, and its debut was the best for a new film last weekend.The showing bodes well for upcoming comic-book fare, which includes next year’s Ghost Rider, X-Men 3and Superman Returns.”The comic books had gotten a little too serious, a little too dark,” says Rob Worley of newer movies weren’t afraid “to lighten up a little.Not every comic-book film has to be a dark psychological study.”
Science fiction: B
Let’s hear it for the stars. The real ones.Science fiction is typically a hard sell for studios, but not when you have Anakin Skywalker, aka DarthVader, who led Star Wars, Episode III:Revenge of the Sith to $377.3 million.And the tripod-driving aliens from War of the Worlds helped power that movie to $224.6 million, Tom Cruise’s biggest film.Even spaced-out aliens sold: TheHitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy did a respectable $51.1 million.”Sci-fi is not the easiest thing to market,” says Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo. “But if the story is strong enough, it will do well, regardless of the genre.”
Remakes: B-
Say what you want about remakes, sequels, spinoffs and franchises: Audiences still flock to what’s familiar.How else to explain the relative success of this summer’s deja-view, in which no fewer than nine remakes hit the big screen? Three of the year’s top 10 films were re-dos: War of the Worlds, The Longest Yard ($155.9 million) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($169 million and counting).And The Dukes of Hazzard opened to a healthy $30.6 million.Not all movies were worth doing over. Houseof Wax mustered only $32.1 million, while The Honeymooners crashed at $12.8 million.Let’s face it, says Gray of Box Office Mojo: Hollywood has given us too many retreads. “But if the storytelling is strong, a remake will be as gooda movie as an original. If the storytelling is bad, the movie will stink.”
Action: D
Remember when summer was about action and special effects? Neither do audiences, who turned their backs on movies built on speed and spectacle.The Island went mostly uninhabited with $30.9 million so far, and XXX: State of the Union fizzled to a meager $26 million. Stealth has flown under the radar to just $24.5 million.”I don’t know what’s going on,” says Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony Pictures, which released Union and Stealth. “But these things tend to be cyclical. I’m sure action is going to make a comeback.”
Sleepers: C+
Wake up, little guy. Hollywood could use a hit. Where is The Passion of the Christ? My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Nearly every summer, a small movie catches fire. Not this season. Lords of Dogtown skated to a meager $11 million. The horror film High Tension provided little with only $3.7 million. And the gangster film Layer Cake shot up screens for a measly $2.3 million. At least two movies got more of audiences’ attention, most notably Crash ($52.3 million) and the $3 million Hustle & Flow ($18.7 million). But nothing came close to the blockbuster mark, and the lack of a little movie playing big was a key in this summer’s weak performance, says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations. “It’s not enough to have one big movie every weekend,” he says. “You need a deep slate of films, and that just didn’t happen most of the time.”