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Big summer for movies, but no big unifying theme

Paul Vercammen

By Paul Vercammen
CNN Entertainment Correspondent

September 2, 1999
Web posted at: 1:23 p.m. EDT (1723 GMT)

In this story:

The numbers please

What's the buzz

Crowded out

Scenes from 'American Pie'
Scenes from "American Pie"  

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- If you recently paid for a night at the movies or sent the kids to sit in front of the big screen, from Mendicino to Medicine Hat -- congratulations! You helped set a new summer box office record.

An unpredictable summer of witches, menaces and silly spies stirred up big gross profits at the domestic box office. In show business geography, "domestic" means Canada is annexed into the United States.

It's expected that when the flattened popcorn is swept up, the gummy bear entrails are scraped off the seats and the ticket receipts are added up after Labor Day, the summer gross domestic box office will finish near $3 billion.

It was just shy of $2.7 billion as of Monday, already breaking last year's mark of $2.6 billion.

So to paraphrase Austin Powers' Dr. Evil, numbers suggest that naysayers should "" about video rentals threatening movie-going.

But perhaps one of the biggest box office trends from the summer is that there wasn't any clear-cut theme when it came to tastes. A hodgepodge of silver screen offerings became golden to the studios.

The numbers please

This summer season, out of more than 90 movies released, 10 have already hurdled the $100 million mark in domestic ticket sales; "American Pie" is expected to do so before it's over.

Here's what was hot, with their projected final grosses (all from Exhibitor Relations Co. Inc., which crunches box office numbers for the movie industry):

"Star Wars, Episode One: The Phantom Menace"$425 million
"The Sixth Sense"$210 million
"Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me"$205 million
"Tarzan"$170 million
"Big Daddy"$160 million
"Runaway Bride"$145 million
"The Blair Witch Project"$140 million
"Notting Hill"$115 million
"Wild Wild West"$112 million
"General's Daughter"$105 million
"American Pie"$100 million

In the movie business, summer begins Memorial Day weekend and ends after Labor Day weekend.

This year's 15-week summer movie season showed there are almost no sure hits or misses these days, and teens care about reviews and production costs "like, really, not."

As promised, the big-budget Star Wars prequel, "The Phantom Menace," which cost an estimated $120 million to make, delivered astronomical numbers (never mind its technically early opening in May).

"Big Daddy" got ripped in many publications. No big deal to Adam Sandler's army of young fans, who made it the summer's fifth-highest grossing movie.

"Wild Wild West" went off like a wet firecracker on the Fourth of July weekend. Its $112 million box office haul is considered a dud because of production costs estimated between $105 million and $180 million.

And for a little more than some elaborately catered Wild West barbecue, two non-Hollywood types cooked up "The Blair Witch Project." The no-budget trip to the Maryland woods reminded all moviemakers that lavish production and egotistical stars aren't always keys to success. Just frighten the audience.

Clearly, scary fared well at the box office. "The Haunting" spent a week at No. 1 despite being bad-mouthed in the press. So much for reviews.

What's the buzz

Moviegoers seemed to pay more attention to positive water cooler talk and chit-chat at shopping mall hangouts and on the Internet.

Strong word of mouth helped vault "The Sixth Sense," which didn't have a huge advertising budget, to the top of the box office for four straight weeks.

Internet buzz especially paid off for "Blair Witch" and "American Pie." Web sites devoted to both films generated traffic as well as ticket sales among cyber movie buffs.

All of this was a boost of free advertising, especially for films that didn't have mega-dollar marketing budgets.

"American Pie," a raunchy teen comedy that cost just $10 million to make, got teens clicking away on their keyboards. Sultry star Shannen Elizabeth boosted the hype with a well-timed coming-out-of-her-clothes party in Playboy.

Sex, creepy stuff and disgusting material got teens talking. While killing time outside the giant 21-screen Pacific Theater in the San Fernando Valley, young moviegoers ticked off their summer favorites -- topping most lists were "American Pie," "Blair Witch" and "South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut" (which featured a string of vulgar jokes, and a steamy romance between Saddam Hussein and the devil).

But before one can say the summer was all just gross-out humor and horror, consider that the overall box office record can only be broken when all ages snap up tickets.

Scenes from 'The Iron Giant'
Scenes from "The Iron Giant"  

Some films struck a bulls-eye with older moviegoers, who needed little more than a familiar face to get them to the theater. Julia Roberts, box office golden girl next door, catapulted "Runaway Bride" and "Notting Hill" to hit status, while John Travolta, led "General's Daughter." These are not the favorite films of the Clearasil set.

Crowded out

The summer demanded that films earn money early or be banished like someone trying to sneak drags off a cigarette in the cineplex.

Movies were not allowed the luxury of sticking around to find an audience in this fast-paced, high-turnover season.

Some very well-reviewed films vanished. Countless movie scribes praised "The Iron Giant," calling it a smart animated film without the obligatory Disney musical numbers. But it made just $18 million, while Disney's "Tarzan" racked up $170 million.

"Dick," described as "Clueless" meets "All the President's Men," won accolades, but the comedy was erased from screens faster you can say Watergate tapes.

"Muppets in Space" was blasted out of theaters. Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam" fizzled. "Eyes Wide Shut" with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman wound up with both a so-so box office and mixed opinions from fans. Austin Powers' mojo proved more powerful than Tom and Nicole's steamy scenes.

Yeah, baby! Powers, "Big Daddy" and Obi Wan Kenobi helped break another domestic box office record for the summer.

But note: Larger percentages of Americans crowded theaters in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when ticket prices were much lower, than do so now.

Do movie moguls, the same people who gerrymandered Canada into the United States for the purpose of counting gross ticket receipts, care? Not a frame of film.

Most are off celebrating that summer box office record.


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